The Guardian, May 23rd
‘In 1964 I was twenty 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 or anything, because nobody said it was dangerous, then suddenly 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, forty years ago, to her major retrospective here at the Hayward, 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 Cezanne apple is, after all, an apple, but one of the few we are likely to look at. Normal vision is dull and practical; we see what we need to see, and no more. Artists see better than we do, and help us to look twice. Rebecca Horn’s particular way of seeing is to go past the sensible obvious arrangements of objects and people, and re-arrange them in a way that is not obvious at all. There’s a Duchamp feel to it, and a Becket-like absurdity, but such is the authority of Horn’s vision that her creations feel both natural and revelatory. They do not seem contrived, over-clever, or perverse. They make sense; intuitive sense. They offer the paradox of recognition and surprise.
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, you always see a kind of cocoon.’ The early work on show at the Hayward like Finger Gloves (1972) Pencil Mask (1972), Black Cockfeathers (1971) and some fan and dress drawings from the 1960’s, 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 break the seal and retrieve what is inside.
In the late ‘60’s and 70’s she worked on one of my favourite pieces, Unicorn, where she made a costume for a fellow-student, and sent her walking in the woods, wearing it, at dawn one summer day. It is a cross between performance and installation. It is ridiculous and sublime. The woman is naked, except for her modest bandaging, and ‘there is a large unicorn (einhorn) on her head. ‘She agreed to wear it, albeit grudgingly, as she was very bourgeois.’
Rebecca Horn always laughs when she tells this story, and of 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 very often, the discomfort, but the seriousness and the playfulness have to run together. In life we are always making separations. In art, things have a wholeness that is harder to bear but closer to the truth.
The drawings for Unicorn, and the costume, are in this exhibition. Part of the purpose of the Retrospective is to show the primacy of drawing in Rebecca 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 truly wonderful to see her latest ‘bodyworks’, which are drawings on paper sized to her reach. Each one is stretched to the extent of her own body. In 1972, Pencil Mask, the first thing you see when you arrive at this exhibition, 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 which is thrilling.
Rebecca Horn is, of course, German, and born in 1944, the year before the end of the 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 straight away. 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, and a voluntary exile, but one whose roots are in her body, her own experience, and what she can make of these, wherever she is. ‘I use my body, I use what happens to me, and I make something.’
In the early 1980’s she was filming a piece in Italy that needed a pea-cock fantail, but by the time the filming moment arrived, the peacock had lost his tail feathers, 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 themselves 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 body heat 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. My machines 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, and point of view it is, the tips of each polished blade touching with a hair gap in between.
Les Amants, (1989) big bold and sexy, all splattered wall, and threatening spray gun, and the T-shirt image for the show, 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.
The emotional chase from one experience to the next has been carefully thought out. Seeing the automata interposed with the drawings and poems and assembled still-lifes, the experience is that of the artist-inventor, the alchemist who transforms one thing into another. There is more than a little bit of magic about Rebecca Horn, with her feathers and wings and mirrors and stones and pools of still water and vials of coloured 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.
‘Every day, for an hour in the mornings, I breath, I open my spine, I put up my light. A swami taught me.’
She is a mystic, not in any fluffy new age way, but in the way that she recognises the mysteriousness of life, and our need to connect with that mystery without explaining it away. This is not the Richard Dawkins universe, where everything can be boxed and labelled. Her 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. They are only moving parts, but she has given them a soul. The result of this is to restore our own souls. You may not believe you have a soul, but a few minutes in front of a Rebecca Horn has a therapeutic effect. These are not toy robots; they are working models of our inner landscapes.
‘You have to believe in something, and you have to give that out to the world’, she tells me. ‘All my life, I am giving out. That is what I want to do.’
She is high-minded. She has real purpose. She is a serious artist. At the same time, her sense of play is undeniable. The first piece of contemporary art my god-children fell in love with was Horn’s upside down piano, (Rebel Moon), homed at Tate Modern, but presently on loan.
Young people instinctively respond to her work, because her imagination is out of prison. ‘Most people live in a little prison, you know, 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.
Her students love her, she still teaches in Berlin, long past any financial need to do so. She likes to collaborate with young people, both for their free energy, and because she wants to keep them free.
‘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.’
She thinks Berlin is the place where there is something happening, ‘there is not much money, but you can rent very cheaply, and artists are coming there from all over the world.’
Does she think that contemporary art is over-hyped and exhausted? ‘No, never. There will always be some like that, and the media is a problem, but there will always be artists. What Charles Saatchi has done is fantastic here. In Britain you are thinking about art. You know the names of your artists and you go and see their work, even if you don’t like it!’
She is bent over the frontispiece of my catalogue making me a picture of a moon out of the end of my espresso. She is physically frailer than when we last met, but her energy is even stronger. It is a happy coincidence that the Frida Kahlo exhibition will open at Tate Modern on June 9th. Kahlo and Horn both use their own body as the basis for their work, and both began their work seriously as invalids in bed. It will be a great thing to walk along the river and see both exhibitions on the same day.
She has made me an exquisite little picture. ‘How do you do that?’ I say, really 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.