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Trail: RebeccaHorn



‘In 1964 I was 20 years old and living in Barcelona, in one of those hotels where you rent rooms by the hour. I was working with glass fibre, without a mask, because nobody said it was dangerous, and I got very sick. For a year I was in a sanatorium. My parents died. I was totally isolated. That’s when I began to produce my first body-sculptures. I could sew lying in bed.”

Rebecca Horn is an artist of transformation. From her beginnings, 40 years ago, to her new retrospective at the Hayward in London, she has remained true to what she calls her “transformative message”. She is an installation Ovid, “ready to tell how bodies change into other bodies” (translation, Ted Hughes). In her work, objects and people morph.

Art has the knack of helping us to see what we would normally miss. A C├ęzanne apple is, after all, an apple, but one of the few we are likely to look at. Normal vision is dull and practical. Artists see better than we do, and help us to look twice. Horn’s way of seeing is to go past the sensible, obvious arrangements of objects and people, and rearrange them in a way that is not obvious at all. There’s a Duchamp feel to it, and a Beckett-like absurdity, but such is the authority of Horn’s vision that her creations feel natural and revelatory. They offer the paradox of recognition and surprise. They make sense, intuitive sense.

From the narrow confines of her bed, Horn began designs that would extend her body. When she was well enough to return to art school, she worked with prosthetic bandages and padded body extensions. “Looking back at my first pieces,” she says, “you always see a kind of cocoon.” The early work in her forthcoming show at the Hayward, such as Finger Gloves (1972), Pencil Mask (1972), Black Cockfeathers (1971) and some fan and dress drawings from the 1960s, have a concealed, protective quality, but one that is curiously revealing. Hiding, or holding herself in, Horn is still communicating. Isolation becomes a message in a bottle; the viewer can retrieve what is inside.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s she worked on Unicorn, one of my favourite pieces: she made a costume for a fellow student, and sent her walking in the woods, wearing it, at dawn one summer day. A cross between performance and installation, it is ridiculous and sublime. The woman is naked except for her modest bandaging and, says Horn, “a large unicorn (einhorn) on her head. She agreed to wear it, albeit grudgingly, as she was very bourgeois”.

Horn always laughs when she tells this story, remembering the hunters who “fell off their bicycles”. She likes her audience to collide with her work. She likes to unseat us. No wonder one of her heroes is Buster Keaton. Comedy and pain share the same vein in her work. She makes us smile, laugh - and then comes the pause and, often, the discomfort. The seriousness and the playfulness run together.

The drawings for Unicorn, and the costume, are in this exhibition. The retrospective shows the primacy of drawing in Horn’s work. There is a mass-market misconception that installation artists do not draw. This is generally not true, but in Horn’s case, everything begins with a drawing: “Making sketches with coloured pencils is still my favourite pastime.” It is exciting to see the drawings alongside the fully realised work, and it is wonderful to see her latest “bodyworks”, drawings on paper that spans the height and reach of her own body. In 1972, Pencil Mask, the first thing you see when you arrive at the show, was a fetishist and frightening way of protecting and creating herself. The 2004 drawings have no fear and no need of devices. They are free in a way that is thrilling.

Horn is German, born in 1944, the year before the end of the second world war. She talks about drawing as a language, a language that was not suspect. “We could not speak German. Germans were hated. We had to learn French and English. We were always travelling somewhere else, speaking something else. But I had a Romanian governess who taught me how to draw. I did not have to draw in German or French or English. I could just draw.”

She never settles. She lives in Paris, Berlin, Majorca, has lived in New York and Barcelona. “If a country asks me to make a piece of work for them, I go and live there.” She is uprooted, a voluntary exile, but one whose roots are in her own experience. “I use my body, I use what happens to me, and I make something.”

In the early 1980s she was filming a piece in Italy that needed a peacock fantail. The peacock, though, lost his tail feathers before his moment at the camera arrived. So Horn built a beautiful machine to do the job for him. It was the beginning of her love affair with automata: the installation-machines that gradually took over from her human body extensions, and became intelligent life forms, commenting on ours.

Germanic pleasure in precision engineering is touchingly apparent in all of the cogs and wheels and motors that power the fantasies she makes. The measurements are millimetre-scaled. The infrared detectors catch us as we enter the room, and our own movement prompts the machines to life. Others simply move when they want to move, or so it seems, inanimate objects suddenly fluttering and rising, then tiring again. “I like my machines to tire,” she says. “They are more than objects. These are not cars or washing machines. They rest, they reflect, they wait.”

And so, in Knuckle Dome for James Joyce (2004), the throat-slittingly sharp kitchen knives move to menace each other, or meet each other, depending on your point of view. Les Amants (1989), big, bold and sexy, all splattered wall and threatening spray gun, is balanced by the quiet, small and bewilderingly beautiful Floating Souls (1990), where sheet music on mechanical moving arms offers itself to you, hesitates, and falls back, exhausted.

Seeing the automata interposed with the drawings, poems and assembled still-lifes, the experience is that of the artist-inventor, the alchemist. There is more than a little bit of magic about Horn, with her feathers and wings, mirrors and stones, pools of still water, vials of liquid and books made out of ashes. In some of the works she has collaborated with New Zealand composer Hayden Chisholm, whose music, like something from Prospero’s island, shimmers over the installations, as though they were breathing it out.

Horn’s installation-machines use engineering and technology to create repeating moments in time that offer a view of timelessness. In a world where intelligent machines threaten to become the new lords of life, Horn’s machines are vulnerable and human-centred. These are not toys; they are working models of our inner landscapes. They are only moving parts, but she has given them a soul.

This is not the Richard Dawkins universe, where everything can be boxed and labelled. Horn is a mystic. “Every day,” she says, “for an hour in the mornings, I breathe, I open my spine, I put up my light. A swami taught me.” She isn’t a mystic in a fluffy new age way, however, but in the way that she recognises the mysteriousness of life.

She is high-minded. She has purpose. “You have to believe in something, and you have to give that out to the world. All my life, I am giving out.” At the same time, her sense of play is undeniable. Young people respond to her work, because her imagination is out of prison. “Most people live in a little prison in their minds.” She believes that this incarceration happens gradually, as we get older, and that one of the reliefs of art is the light it sends through the bars.

She likes to collaborate with young people, both for their free energy, and because she wants to keep them free. She still teaches in Berlin, long past any financial need to do so. “Always now, it is about money, it is about fame, and if you cannot see past money and fame, you cannot make your own work.”

As we talk, Horn is making me a picture of a moon, using the dregs of my espresso. It is exquisite. “How do you do that?” I ask, amazed. She doesn’t look up, just gets out her lipstick to finish it off. “I am an artist,” she replies, very simple and matter of fact. Not grand at all.