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The Movement of the Body, the Substance of the Self
On Rebecca Horn's Body Landscapes

Her puzzle and painting machines have made her famous, yet Rebecca Horn's ephemeral drawings have remained comparatively unknown. Now, the art collection of North Rhine/Westphalia, K20, is showing a successful combination of installations and 80 paper works by the artist. Magdalena Kröner on the key role of drawing, feminist body art, poetry, and surrealism in the work of the New York-based artist.

Rotation of the Silver Crane, 1984, Deutsche Bank Collection

The artist Rebecca Horn, born in 1944, moved to New York in 1972. The idea she had in mind was simple, yet insistent: to search out the body's landscapes and describe them; to stage its movements, observe and distort them, and to investigate its poetic attributes. While Rebecca Horn has used a variety of media over the course of her forty-year career, she has always remained true to a fundamental interest in the body and the corporeal.

Paradieswitwe, 1975, Deutsche Bank Collection

Rebecca Horn has shot films, put on performances, and built a large number of wonderfully fragile, surreal puzzle and painting machines - it was primarily through the latter that she became well-known. Speaking about her devices, the artist has said: "My machines aren't Laundromats. They're nervous, and sometimes they have to pause. If a machine no longer runs, it doesn't mean that it's broken; it's merely exhausted. The machines' tragic and melancholic aspect is important to me. I don't want them to go on functioning forever."

Until now, Rebecca Horn's ephemeral drawings have remained less known; they've accompanied an oeuvre that has developed in a variety of areas and genres engaged in a continuous process of self-reference.

Blüten der Mandel, 2004
©Rebecca Horn / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004
Photo: Gunter Lepkowski

Drawing has always been a favored medium in Rebecca Horn's work, as the current exhibition at the Art Collection North Rhine / Westphalia, K20, testifies to in its successful combination of 20 installations and sculptures with 80 works on paper; like an ongoing notebook, it has accompanied all her experiments and excursions into new territory.

Unicorn, 1970
©Rebecca Horn / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004
Photo: Achim Thode

Whether it's a matter of performance, machine, or film - Horn's movements through space and her interactions with space always remain concrete in their clear connection to the body. This treatment of the body as a departure point and scale of reference can best be experienced in Horn's early body sculptures, such as her famous "Unicorn" from 1970, in which the artist, inspired by the prostheses and bandages of the clinics and sanatoriums from the turn of the century, has an actress walk through a cornfield. While her movements remain limited, her posture is nonetheless upright and proud, expressing an almost paradoxical dignity; despite her barely concealed nudity, the woman looks like the dignitary of a secret society or a member of a strange species, such as the fabulous creature of the work's title. In her body sculptures, Rebecca Horn also refers back to art historical models - one only need think of Max Ernst's collages or the artistic body manipulations of the Surrealists.

Pencil Mask, 1972, (Filmstill)
©Rebecca Horn / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

At the same time, Rebecca Horn also visualizes an immediate experience in her body sculptures that has its roots in the feminist Body Art of the time, within which Rebecca Horn occupies a unique position. Horn localizes the body in a semantic interstice - it is neither 'free' nor 'natural,' as its occasional placement in nature might suggest. In Horn's work, the body is always a medium of direct civilizational and social inscription - conversely, shifting from object to subject, it also becomes the inscriber. Rebecca Horn has expressed this in a particularly intense way in works such as Pencil Mask, which she used for a 1972 performance: here, she wears a restrictive, dangerous-looking mask on her head and uses it to make marks on the wall. "There are three vertical straps and six horizontal straps tied around my head. A pencil is affixed to each intersection of straps. Each pencil is 5 cm long; together, they create a spacial likeness of my profile. When I move my head rhythmically back and forth before a white wall, the pencils draw the course of the movement on the wall in lines that grow denser and denser," as the artist described this impressive performance.

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