While working with toxic materials as a student, German artist Rebecca Horn contracted lung poisoning and was sent to a sanitarium for about a year between 1968 and 1969, during which time she was often bedridden and isolated from the outside world. Tragically, her parents also passed away while she was hospitalized. For two years afterward she continued to live in seclusion as she fully recovered, physically weakened for long periods of time and unable to visit with friends or family. This experience led Horn to experiment with individualized body extensions as a coping strategy. She sought new ways to engage with herself and with others, explaining that with extreme fever, “you crave to grow out of your own body and merge with the other person’s body, to seek refuge in it” (quoted in Body Landscapes, 190). Alone and incapacitated, Horn cautiously explored her personal space and how her body could interact with her surrounding environment, creating pieces out of fabric, feathers, and wood that allowed the wearer to expand their grasp of their surroundings through invented rituals. Many of her ideas were visually influenced by the hospital setting, including designs that involve large bandages, body trusses, and prostheses. Her staged performances, which were often produced as films, featured both her and actors in various roles executing specific movements. When incorporated into these studied, often intimate scenes, the objects themselves become imbued with symbolic, mythological power in their relation to the wearer, through which Horn forges ambiguous but weighty narratives.
Horn’s switch from a well-trod medium like pencil and ink drawing to less standard materials and formats is one many of her contemporaries- especially other women- made during the 1960s and 70s. These decades have become characterized by a surge of civil rights movements, including women’s liberation. Gerlinde Gabriel asserts that video became (and remained) a popular format for women artists due to its independence of operation and the “possibilities of a new aesthetic” (The Divided Heritage, 149). Horn’s favoring of everyday materials and use of sewing as a mode of construction recall the feminist movement to reclaim stereotypically “female” crafts like knitting and embroidery and elevate them to a high art sphere.
Horn engages with her body on a private, exploratory level, using her sculptural extensions to test its limits of expression and movement. She responds to some of the same issues as outwardly feminist body artists, but does so in a more introspective way, recalling her own experiences and bringing them forward as a representation of a possible everywoman. Blending personal history and universal experience, Horn’s body extensions are simultaneously restrictive and liberating. Joy Sleeman differentiates Horn from other feminist body artists of the 1970s, identifying her fixation with the exterior as opposed to the interior: “The body in Horn’s work is very much about an expressive, extrovert kind of body… even when Horn’s dealing with something that is to do with the body’s viscera, to do with the internal workings of the body… her way of working with that is to externalize it entirely” (Papers of Surrealism 5). She shields her body while also exposing it, intentionally restricting it as well as allowing it new possibilities through her extensions. In some works she calls attention to her body as female, creating specific roles for herself to inhabit that fulfill or reject specific incarnations of womanhood, while in others she fixates instead on a more generalized body, unfettered by gender.
In 1970 Horn produced Cornucopia, Séance for Two Breasts, a sculpture composed of fabric stretched over a metal shell in the shape of two black horns that taper and fuse together at one end. Documenting its use through photography, she attaches the larger ends to her breasts individually, with the device coming upward to her mouth and affixed with straps around her back, neck, and forehead. Thus, her mouth is directly connected to her breasts, allowing her, in a way, to breathe herself in and interact intimately with a part of her body associated with nourishment. It is presumed to be autobiographical- a representation of the artist’s emotional starvation and physical weakening. Some of you might recognize the concept from Marilyn Manson’s video for “The Dope Show,” which references multiple Horn works.
Horn herself describes Cornucopia as a means for the wearer to experience their body differently, more closely. “The breasts are separated from the rest of the body and in direct contact through mutual isolation with the mouth. A constant communication between both takes place. This instrument creates a sense of communication with oneself” (quoted in WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, 247). Normally, most people would be unable to interact with their breasts in this way, and this creation forges a path from one sensory field to another. It is both a wearable sculpture and a functioning tactile enhancer, making the wearer’s body an integral part of the artwork. Most of Horn’s body extensions operate like this- only seeing their intended effect fully realized when paired with a human body. In this way she fully integrates the disparate media of sculptural object and performative body.
Rebecca Horn: Einhorn, 1970-72. via Miss Parker
One of Horn’s first major body extensions and performances was Einhorn (Unicorn). Made of fabric, wood, and metal, the construction is a long white cylinder that tapers to a point like an animalistic horn, connected to the wearer by a series of straps that extend down the neck and torso in a bandage-like format. The wearer is physically bound and therefore limited in movement, but also lent the appearance of sophistication through forced maintenance of straight-backed posture and regal headwear. Meant for a woman, the object exposes the wearer’s breasts and lower body, and both are fused into one focus of the viewer’s gaze. Tapping into mythological associations of the purity and gracefulness of unicorns (as well as parodying her own last name), Horn elevates the wearer’s body into a symbolic representation of stereotypical womanly virtue, placing her in idyllic scenery for staged video performances.
The Unicorn object was built specifically for a woman who caught Horn’s eye by a certain way of walking. Her stiff upper body and expressive leg movements reflected a certain trope the artist had envisioned. Horn emphatically describes the final scenario: “Her consciousness electrically impassioned; nothing could stop her trance-like journey: in competition with every tree and cloud in sight…” (quoted in Rebecca Horn, 11). The video piece was filmed in the early morning, and features the woman silently walking towards the camera, head perfectly erect as she traverses a tree-lined dirt path devoid of any pedestrians. She later wades through a field of high grasses. Her figure mirrors the tall foliage surrounding her, but her pale skin and long white horn separate her from her environment, conjuring images of the fabled creature the title references.
Rebecca Horn: Einhorn, 1968-69. via Tate
Jenni Sorkin encapsulates Horn’s early works’ general theme as interest in “the interaction between the body and the environment – especially in processes of constriction and isolation that render the body vulnerable” (WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, 247). Unicorn is a clear example of these motifs. Through an act of exhibitionism combined with the liberating effects of costume, this woman seems to move freely within her natural environment- recalling clichés of female connections to nature and so-called “mother earth”. However the bondage aspect of the horn contraption and its restrictions on her movement speak to the limitations placed on women in general, as they are often physically constrained by clothing and assumptions of “feminine” presentation. Her presence in the space is just a performance, her appearance as a mythical creature is fabricated with man-made materials. As the personified unicorn the performer inhabits an in-between space, societal expectations of elegance and purity thrust upon her while she is barred from full acceptance within that society. Such a layered performance piece further situates Horn within the larger context of body art in the 1960s and 70s. Like the works of her peers, it “insists upon subjectivities and identities (gendered, raced, classed, sexed, and otherwise) as absolutely central components of any cultural practice” (Jones, Body Art / Performing the Subject, 31).
Rebecca Horn: Two Hands Scratching Both Walls, 1974-75. via Distorted
In her video piece, Mit Beiden Händen Gleichzeitig die Wände Beruhren (Two Hands Scratching Both Walls) (1974-75), Horn dons white versions of her 1972 Fingerhandschuhe (Finger Gloves) extensions and stands in the center of an empty room in her apartment clad in a black shirt and pants. A large mirror is placed opposite her between two rounded windows. She begins with her back to the camera, slowly extending her spindly beige finger extensions to the parallel side walls. She walks slowly and deliberately in a straight line away from the viewer, echoing the earlier performance of Unicorn. Lifting up her hands to the ceiling she carefully rotates to face the camera, stretches them out to the walls and again walks slowly in a straight line. She repeats this process several times, always silent except for the natural sounds of outside traffic, footsteps, and the grating, scratching noise of her finger extensions.
Repetitive in nature and simplistic in premise, Two Hands Scratching Both Walls is nevertheless propelled by narrative questioning. The viewer is forced to look beyond the surface of the action, as Horn appeals to the our imaginations. The Finger Gloves themselves, composed of wood, fabric, and painted metal, are somewhat vicious-looking instruments, recalling animal claws or the lethally sharpened nails of cartoon villains. When strapped to her hands they “both enable and disable her, and it seems as if she is looking for the possibilities and impossibilities of the extension of her body schema and of her sensitive, sensory body” (De Preester, Janus Head 9). Horn’s use of them is seemingly benign, lightly scratching the walls of her empty apartment. Through her invention she explores the boundaries of her space, likening her home to a prison as she paces back and forth in the almost bare room. There is no one with whom she can interact save herself, as tauntingly reflected in her large mirror. This again likely references her time spent in isolation, perhaps giving her a sense of empowerment through extended reach while she is confined.
Rebecca Horn: Untitled, 1968-69. via Tate
As seen in this piece, a common theme in Horn’s work is sensory perception and especially the experience of physical touch. When using the Finger Gloves she says, “I can feel, grasp, touch anything with them, but keep a certain distance from the objects. I feel me touching, I see me grasping, I control the distance between me and the objects” (Gabriel, The Divided Heritage, 153). She cannot actually feel anything with her finger extensions but there is a distinct sensation produced for both her and the viewer when they scratch the walls. The sound they create, the visual of the interaction, and the sensory memory of how painted interior walls feel all merge to create the illusion of actual touch. The barrier between her and her object of touch is also what allows her to reach it in the first place, thus ultimately creating “overdistensions of one level of the senses to which another level must often fall victim in going to extremes” (Stooss, Rebecca Horn, 11). She is able to maintain a level of security through this method, experiencing a deadened version of the touching sensation without risking the potential danger or unknowable outcome of the real action.
Rebecca Horn: Finger Gloves, 1972. via Art Wiki
Through her imaginative body extensions and performances Rebecca Horn creates a range of characters and scenarios, incorporating myth, feminism, and personal history into the final works. In her pieces from the early 1970s, she sought new ways to both interact with her own body and communicate through it, affected strongly by her experiences in isolation during her sickness. Like many female artists of the time she presented her body as a powerful expressive force, layering it with sculptural extensions, restraints, and enhancements to further distinguish it. She exaggerates her capabilities of nourishment and reproduction in Cornucopia, embodies a noble woman mired in mythology and gender constraints in Unicorn, and tests the limits of her body’s spatial interactions in Scratching Both Walls. An ambiguous narrative is woven throughout many of Horn’s works of this period, showcasing a woman who wants to come out of her shell, inventing new ways of utilizing her body and its creative powers. She is bound by convention, by physical limitations, by man-made restrictions, but works through them in her exploratory actions and eventually moves past them.
Rebecca Horn is one of my absolute favorite artists and I hope to gradually further explore her body of work on this blog, from her music- and dance-driven participatory body extensions to her eventual move into playful kinetic sculpture. She is also a filmmaker (and devoted admirer of Buster Keaton) and I would love to get my hands on some of her hard-to-find features. This post derives from a longer research paper I wrote in 2012 about her early work.
Berlin – Übungen in 9 Stücken. DVD. Directed by Rebecca Horn. From 40 Yearsvideoart.de. 1974-75; Hatje Cantz: 2006.
Bice Curiger, Rebecca Horn, and Toni Stooss. “The Anatomy of Sensitivity.” In Rebecca Horn: Ausstellung Kunsthaus Zürich 11. Juni bis 24. Juli 1983. Translated by Stephen Locke. Kunsthaus Zürich, 1983.
Helena De Preester. “To Perform the Layered Body—A Short Exploration of the Body in Performance.” Janus Head, 9(2) (2007): 349-383.
Gerlinde Gabriel. “The Female Artist: Attitudes and Positions in West German Feminist Art after 1968.” The Divided Heritage: Themes and Problems in German Modernism, edited by Irit Rogoff, 147-160. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Rebecca Horn, et al. Body Landscapes. Hantje Cantz Publishers, 2005.
Amelia Jones. Body Art / Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Sarah Kent, Joy Sleeman, Peg Rawes, and Anna Dezeuze. “Drawing the Line: A Round Table on Rebecca Horn.” Papers of Surrealism 5 (2007).
Jenni Sorkin. “Rebecca Horn Artist Biography.” WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Edited by Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.
Gudrun Wefers. “Frauenfilm als Gegenfilm.” Die Rezeption feministischer Filmtheorie in Rebecca Horns ‘Berlin – Übungen in neun Stücken’ (1974-75). Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft (2000): 337-359.