PRINT October 1984


WITH THE WORK OF Rebecca Horn one must pay attention to the references to the conditions of her own life without losing sight of the symbolic role of such visual communication. Her strength lies in her recognition of both the primacy of experience and the interdependence between a relationship with the self and a relationship with the world. She demonstrates that art needs to be understood not only in terms of formal and historical structures, but also in terms of the subject matter itself. Such a subjective dimension, which goes beyond most “abstractions” (usually revealed as mystifying and idealizing), recurs systematically in her work.

One might say that a Proustian infatuation lingers in Horn’s work, pushing her, from 1968 on, to express her, inner world with increasing intensity, through storylike images and memories translated into photographs, drawings, writings, videotapes, and films. Her work implies and explicates the presence of a “lost time” located somewhere between mythology and history. The cinematographic repetition of characters and situations (the doctor, the actor, the twins, the sanatorium, the ballerina, the musician, the automobile accident, the peacock and other animals) as well as the sculptural recurrence of structures and materials—feathers, fans, traps, boxes, salt, scissors, an ostrich egg, handwriting, a hammer, and water—work to build a sense of a world that finds its identity in personal and private memories, the exposure and existence of which, however, indicate its universality.

Each of Horn’s endeavors testifies to her desire to clarify, first to others and then to herself, the fascination of female fantasy. Her characters, part animal, part human, move within a territory of desire and constriction, of sensuality and rigidity—a territory that accepts them but subjects them to a continuous transformative game whereby opposites can coexist. The clothes worn by her characters are mechanical corollas for this territory; arranged around the body they function as instruments of both defense and expansion. At times their weight numbs and constrains the person to inactivity; at other times their fabrication in soft materials, like feathers, suggests a sensual, gestural quality. They are elaborations of the self, envelopes which give meaning to the fluctuations and pleasures that occur between the self and the outer world. Through them, Horn is reflected.

Up until 1972 the pieces required a small circle of people, tied by interpersonal relationships. Within this circle Horn attempted to dissolve every type of psychological barrier in order to establish an intimate and emotionally comfortable ritual space. After achieving this security she limited herself to the polarities of male and female. This passage from the social to the erotic occurred through a change of skin: the figures who had formerly been enclosed within apparatuses that immobilized them and that weighted them down became exotic birds or flowers made of feathers, capable of blossoming and of turning inward. Also, since 1972 Horn has not done public performances but has used means of transmission like films, photography, or video—thus defending her experience without excluding the possibility of communicating it. In a 1973 videotape, entitled Lilien (Lily), for example, Horn was taped while she devoured a flower; in another tape, Hahnenmaske (Cockfeather mask, 1974), she appears wearing a mask of cock feathers and swallows up the face of a man in front of her. The action occurs with seductive slowness, attesting to the tenderness of the two beings toward each other. Her face, swathed in feathers, is the reflection of a person who no longer accepts being defined or confined within a restricted and petrified space, but who wants to exist freely and imaginatively. The new skin gives her the courage to write a new story. In another work, Paradieswitwe (Paradise widow, 1975), an immobile figure—a symbiotically united female body and mythical bird—is offered as a symbol of a state between sensual life and death. (According to Horn, widowhood is a delicate instrument of martyrdom.) The subject is filmed within the intimacy of an empty room; transformation can only occur in solitude. Solitude in a room, whose only openings are windows, assumes the significance of being hidden in a remote place; within this space one can give free rein to marvelous apparitions (as Horn wrote, it became “a cage: one in which you could perform the most extreme forms of action”).

Later, aware of the power derived from hidden realms, Horn built an instrument, Die Chinesische Verlobte (The Chinese fiancée, 1977), meant to invite others to similar self-awareness. Standing alone in a room was another, smaller room with six black wood doors, each one capable of holding a person standing upright. The doors were open, but as soon as someone entered the small structure they slowly and silently closed. Within, darkness was total. After the initial anguish and disorientation, comfort was provided by the sound of a taped conversation between two Chinese girls. In the company of this sound one relaxed, allowing both inner and outer concentration. The isolation lasted about one minute in total, then the doors reopened automatically and one was once again in touch with the world. The metaphor of a cocoon is appropriate: the moment of expansion of self occurs through the suspension of all contact with the external world and through reflection on the whole person. It is quite possible to interpret Die Chinesische Verlobte as a descent into a darkroom where one accomplishes the passage necessary for knowing the mystery of the self as well as that of dreamlike “reality.” The ritual is neither sentimental nor romantic. Horn’s consistent invention of complex mechanisms reveals a lucid detachment. Inner needs do not exclude the importance of rational control over the processes employed to achieve satisfaction, which is why external reality is not forgotten by Horn.

In all her work, the presence of cultural symbols is maintained, along with images from the unconscious. Intermediary veils allow the story or the telling of the story to vary according to the object dreamed and the speaking subject. Taking advantage of the relationships and interactions which actually exist between concrete experience and desire, Horn ends up creating “metaphors,” both obvious and opaque, where persona and personalities coincide. Thus, within her poetic, the “I” and the “other” resemble each other. They have attitudes and attributes in common, leading one to say that the types of objects and characters depicted cover the entire range of “living” creatures, with a cyclical movement between the two spheres of the objective and the subjective, the inanimate and the animate. Objects thus become “evocative” moments and condensed images; the room is established as a cocoon which coincides with the growth of the self. (One can be clothed in walls or in feathers.) Its walls are steeped in solitude and in whispers. These are the walls of the abyss, within which a young person is submerged. They determine a restricted space, a place of introverted ceremony which always involves an initiation, based on the immobility of the body and the mobility of fantasy. The story of a particular life (of a young girl) thus unfolds through the passage from one of these rooms to another, along a vital path that leads no place in particular. The last room might, in fact, be a cage.

It is no wonder that from 1975 on Horn has dedicated so much of her energy to filmmaking, where metaphor dissolves into reality and vice versa. In the cinema it is especially difficult to distinguish actual events from secondary meanings and it is possible to represent dreams as “reality.” Horn’s two full-length films, Der Eintänzer (The dancing cavalier, 1978) and La Ferdinanda—Sonate für eine Medici-Villa, 1981, reflect a reality made up in part of dreams. (She is currently working on a third film, based on the figure of Buster Keaton.) Even in the first film the stratifications between object and image intersect. The object that the artist exhibits in a gallery finds its filmic equivalent in the static and fixed frame; at other times it is affected by its dynamism. The objects can become animated and “responsive.” They can dance, groan, withdraw, move about—that is, they can possess a psychology and an emotionalism. And so in Horn’s zoo of images there are not just animals, but tools, like the table and the bath. Their life is not manifestly real, but subjective, situated between the polarities of function and desire. The current that runs through all her work provides an interchangeability between things and human beings, reality and fiction. Everything is expressed incessantly in terms of the fluidity and metamorphosis of a double existence. Thus the substitution of an object for a person allows the table to experience a prolonged orgasm, just as the reflection between animal and man allows the ostrich to fall in love with its guardian.

Horn’s films and objects cover the entire range of reality and unreality. To obtain this total representation, she focuses her attention on a known universe. The continuous passage that transfigures appearance into reality and reality into appearance is, in fact, picked out of her surrounding world. This is accomplished through a discrete series of stories and characters that exist without complete existential detachment between them and the director, between them and the chosen objects, or between them and the spectator. These make up a worldly totality, troubled from within and corroded from without. Let us examine some of the characters seen through the “projections” of her films.

In Der Eintänzer, the essential character of the site, the New York artist’s studio, immediately symbolizes the intended identification. The first scene opens with Max playing the theme from Carol Reed’s thriller, The Third Man (1949), on a miniature piano. As with all fantasies, this one cannot pass through the world of the imaginary without entering the justifying territory of reality. The beginning is thus an anchoring sign in concrete life; once this postulate is affirmed Horn can proceed to objectify the magic and the unreal. The amalgamation of reality and fiction is soon advanced by the arrival of the ballerina who, compared to the solitude of Max and his poor piano playing, represents the sign of creation and vital movement. Their two worlds are so far apart that they immediately argue. Having nothing at all in common, they are in stark contrast—like pleasure and work, woman and man.

Between the two poles of Max and the ballerina enters the double, represented by the “twins,” Mary and Kathleen. Their appearance is accompanied by that of other symbols (hat pins, a Buddha, an ostrich egg, mirrors, a bed . . . ) all of which are evocative. Each evocation induces a different reconstruction of the past and future representations that occur in Horn’s work. The twins are a sign of symmetry and duality; their presence underlines the unresolved contradiction of living “apart.” While there is a germ of difference between them, their similarity misleads Max over the telephone, as it also confounds Frazer, the blind man. They represent an enigma, a seductive trap. Their mirroring of one another increases the fantastic quality inherent in each of them, exaggerating their dark side. One twin is interested in and attracted by the ostrich egg, by the pins, by the Buddha, and by personal photographs of Horn herself. Enchanted in front of the pin, which, beyond denoting a wellspring of riches, is the purest form of feminine elegance as well as the most subtle arm of defense, she is thus adorned by the force of seduction as well as by beauty. Appropriating the pin for herself, Kathleen makes it her most radical feminine weapon; the pin pierces through all bodies, touching inside and out. As with seduction, the pin exercises a cruel and sweet fascination, since it refers to the obsession of “passing through” the psychical and physical depth of a human being. It is the pin or the spear or the syringe that pierces the ostrich or peacock egg that appears in Horn’s other works or filmic sequences. (In La Ferdinanda, for example, Dr. Marchetti fertilizes the eggs every day with a serum to produce an entire generation of female peacocks.) The analogy between creation and the male primogenitor can be found in early cultures; while the egg is a female symbol, what emerges is the male god who structures the laws that govern human society.

Interestingly, in Horn’s films and her other work the egg is specifically an ostrich or a peacock egg. In ancient times the ostrich was seen as a symbol of extreme stupidity; in Christian cultures it becomes the image of a wise and just man who doesn’t turn to look back at the past and who concerns himself only with perfection.

This transformation of the symbol of the ostrich is worth thinking about. Might it be because the ostrich, besides producing the largest and most perfect egg, is the only bird possessing the faculty for urination? In Der Eintänzer the ostrich feathers form a “delicate machine” which wraps around the young ballerina. The feather fan devours her like a carnivorous plant and removes her from the real world, depriving her of sight and sound. That the absorption by the male has occurred becomes obvious in the scene in which (as Horn describes it) another ballerina “holds the ostrich egg in her hands . . . . She places it on her head—lets her hands drop . . . . and—the egg remains as though it had grown roots.” The sovereignty of the ostrich is thus equivalent to the power that one half of humanity holds over the other. But like all forms of power, the ostrich lives in a state of self-seduction. Is there an alternative to this stupidity? It doesn’t seem so, even with the appearance of the blind man, who has his glance turned inward and wants to live and feel things in a “different“ manner. Perhaps he represents the itinerant poet or prophet, from Homer to Tiresias, from Oedipus to Tobias, always in quest of hidden poetry.

All of Horn’s actions “speak” the language of deconstruction as well as of communication. The fragmentation signifies comprehension and information about the parts. For Horn, to articulate a film means to transfer from sequence to sequence, from object to object, from character to character, a personal meaning as well as a critical qualification. Thus it is possible for her to reuse the same elements; reassembling them, they change. La Ferdinanda has a circular flow of figures who return and recompose another story, specifically through their games of association and analogy. The entire film is pervaded by the artist’s favorite themes. The twins appear once again; the musician no longer plays the piano, but the cello; there is the near sacrifice of the youth, the swings, the bird eggs and feathers, as well as the continuous memories of magical and arcane symbols. But between appearance and reappearance, between the repetition of figures and characters, what matters is always the chain of imaginary and real connotations.

La Ferdinanda, in the film as well as in reality, is a Medici villa owned by a bourgeois family grown wealthy through industrial holdings. To maintain the villa, the family must rent it out for celebrations, gatherings, and weddings. In the film the villa is a simulacrum of sumptuous, pleasurable life, a travesty of life and nothing more. It is a fundamentally perverse place. Horn’s choice of the villa is the sign of a “falsified” image, where the pleasure of life is only an appearance. This is a ferocious parody, where staged phantasms always win out over the authentic. In this society what matters is the mask that one wears. Everything lives by simulation, and the axiom of La Ferdinanda is that of the artificial, encompassing all excesses of appearance. This is the reason that all the characters in this “Sonata for a Medici Villa” seem removed from the specificity of their roles: Dr. Marchetti does research for pleasure; Mischa is a solitary Russian cellist; the villa is up for rent; Signora de Dominicis is a false “rich” woman; Mr. Sutherland is a fake art historian; Simona is a failed ballerina. Each of them lives a facade, as though desire were brought to a halt in order to live alone within a strategy of appearance and simulation.

The villa is the place where white peacocks breed; their eggs are used for the experiments and manias of Dr. Marchetti. According to Greek mythology, the peacock, created by the goddess Hera, was the sign of magnificence and totality. When it displayed its plumage, in fact, it exhibited all the colors of nature. In addition, anyone who looked within this phantasmagoria might be overcome by dizziness. In the film the peacock participates in the ritual of the villa, and a ceremony recalling both necromancy and sorcery is established around its eggs. Each morning when Dr. Marchetti, the vile scientist, injects a serum into a different egg, he is hoping to genetically transform the growth of the exotic birds and thus make nature his slave. But the peacock is also a symbol of incorruptibility, and for this reason his activities are doomed to failure. (Is the villa, then, also a place for failures who dedicate their lives to macabre practices?) Meanwhile Paola, the nurse, systematically exposes her “intimate plumage” each time the doctor passes by. The contemplation of the plumage abolishes all actual sexual participation; in the villa eroticism is only entrusted to the surfaces of images.

Caterina de Dominicis enjoys a particular state of indifference which causes her to systematically repeat her gestures and her voyages. She always visits the same places, in the same seasons, at almost the same hour. Is the villa another place of senseless repetition which thrives on reproduction in order to defer its death? It is said of Caterina that what makes her fascinating is her artificiality. The former opera singer is surrounded by golden people who adorn her like jewels and furs. She derives pleasure from showing them off, even if the result is a strange mix of people and objects. One of those who accompanies and ornaments her is the Russian cellist Mischa. He too, like Caterina, is self-sufficient because of his creative narcissism. He derives all pleasure from his cello, to the point that Caterina complains about his deficiencies as a lover, but for him the instrument’s notes are like the peacock’s feathers. The inhabitants of La Ferdinanda live through self-gratification, and subordinate themselves only to narcissistic ideals. They have no alternative but to love themselves and their own thoughts. Their dialogue is thus nonexistent. When they speak and move they tend only toward self-seduction. The only element of disorder is in the character of the niece, Simona, who does not convey an image so much as a background, one of chaos and nightmares. She is the only one who doesn’t wear a mask but instead cloaks her body in weariness or discomfort, or else covers herself with a second skin made of wool or strawberries. In the world of La Ferdinanda, she represents vital movement. Everything about her, including the dream of the strawberry, is personal. Her body is not rigid and made up, but seems extremely fragile, while the other characters are rigid and restricted, as though their bodies were constrained beneath their clothes. Simona, however, is fluid and sensual, and for this reason she doesn’t relate to anyone. Her only conversation is with Larry, who later almost becomes a victim and object of sacrifice. For one more definition of La Ferdinanda, one might say that it is a territory of human robots who adapt their movements to unreal models. For them, reality doesn’t exist; they have neither past nor future. Unlike Simona, the other characters in the villa are not weighted down by possessions or suitcases. At the most they possess cases for their musical instruments or for makeup. For the young girl, however, the contents of her luggage become a fantastic means through which she escapes and imagines a personal memory and a secret which she must acknowledge if she is to live fully. The insides of the luggage are also erogenous zones, and Simona contemplates them from the floor, engaging in a sensual and erotic dialogue with them.

One must understand that as an artist, Horn does not condemn another artist; therefore, if Mischa is made robotlike by his self-gratification, his music is his salvation. In his room is a blue bath with a Rosicrucian text at its bottom; when the cellist begins to play, the water moves. Art and music coexist to exalt each other, to produce tides of feeling that make transformation possible. One must add, however, that this exchange of energy, between musician and bath, between music and art, is completed only in a parodistic sense. According to Rosicrucian doctrine blue is the sign of the feminine; the masculine movement is the plucking of the bow. The music played is Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote (1897), a piece that represents the cellist’s own barrenness. This quotation of Strauss also refers to the defects of the prosperous bourgeoisie of the 19th century and its continuing materialism and positivism throughout the 20th. Strauss—originally an innovator, later becoming just a virtuoso—symbolizes yet another duality, the two poles of experimentation and mannerism. In the same scene the twins near the cellist reflect this duality.

At this point the film’s main characters are provided with an image that lends substance to a story; as in Der Eintänzer, a sacrifice is foreseen. On the day of Signora de Dominicis’ visit La Ferdinanda is rented out, as usual (and as in reality), for a wedding banquet. Here a union (this too a sacrificial one) between two industrial families is consummated. One family manufactures refrigerators, the other ice cream, and they find their symbol of union in the penguin, the trademark of the refrigerator factory. This union only increases the number of refrigerators, capable of containing any sort of nature. The theme of hot and cold, from the bathtub to the thermometer, from the egg incubator to the penguin, could trigger another interpretation of Horn’s films, but let’s return to La Ferdinanda. Sutherland, the art historian, and his young American lover, Larry, arrive. The distinctive sign of the former is the silver hammer with which he inspects the construction of the Medici villa. The figure of the art historian is equivalent to that of the blind man in Der Eintänzer. He is in love with hidden poetry, with feelings still tender. These are found in his sportive, slightly stoned young lover. Sutherland will be the only one (like Mr. Frazer in Der Eintänzer, played not coincidentally by the same actor) to converse or relate to the twins. The duality, sexual as well as intellectual, between appearance and reality, between internal and external, intrigues and fascinates him. In fact, he represents poetry, and it is from this world that Larry comes.

Larry is the only character who manages to communicate with the ballerina, as well as with the young gardener. With the appearance of the figures of Sutherland and Larry there is a departure from simulation and an entry into real existence, where interactions are based not on words—another phantasm—but on a dialogue of feelings. And it is within this circle of silence and nonverbal communication that the sacrifice/crime occurs. The search for human interaction between the Italian gardener and the American is based on hand gestures, nods of the head, changes of glance, shifts of the body, smiles and laughs. Their forms of expression and behavior, while primordial, allow true communication. Even if they don’t resort to words, they manage to relate in intimate and personal fashion. They communicate love or brotherhood, attributes inaccessible to the others. To the outside observer they might appear animallike, but they are, instead, intense and profoundly intellectual. “The human animal” must be killed; Larry is nearly beaten to death by strangers. Naturally one could attribute this crime to a phobia toward the “different,” but this interpretation would be only epidermal. Yes, the anonymous attackers are aware of assaulting someone “different,” different not just in a sexual sense, but in a “communicative” sense as well. They aim to keep their insensitive territory from being contaminated. They are would-be executioners in the realm of appearances. Their action confirms that desire has been abolished from their world of phantasms and work. He (or in the case of Simona, she) who expresses him- or herself through feelings is deemed perverse and nonproductive. The opposition between these two spheres is reinforced by the dinner that brings together all the characters except Larry (who asserts his independence). Mr. Sutherland, Dr. Marchetti, Caterina de Dominicis, and Mischa are seated at the table. They wear evening clothes and are surrounded by mirrors which infinitely reproduce their images. They all tend to proliferate their own mechanistic figures, back into the past and forward into the future, and it is no accident that their tableside discussion about Caterina’s failure to cut a record develops into a discussion about Leonardo’s research about opera as a machine. Everything and everyone to them is mechanical. No ties of affection bind them; they are thrilled only by themselves. They are reciprocal fetishists who have the power to represent the world. Their immobility is their strength, as is their sterility. Only the independent “children,” from the niece to the friend, have the capacity to live. The comparison here is specifically with the life of Cosimo de Medici and his children, who all died under tragic circumstances. The near death of Larry continues this symbolic chain of premature deaths, based on the ritual sacrifice of the heir (whether of heredity or of feeling).

The interiors of the villa play a part in the death ceremony. Several shots show a maid on the first floor counting aloud up to seven (the number of Cosimo’s children); she breaks eggs, separating the yolks. This gesture punctuates many sequences of the film and becomes one of the connecting motifs between the near killing and the “promise of new life.” The egg, like the children or Larry, becomes the “martyr,” but it can also become the symbol of an ornithological event—the mortality of the birds afflicted by chromosomic memory. Dr. Marchetti theorizes that the most insensitive creatures will resist this mass death. And the insensitive never cease to exist. The last scenes of La Ferdinanda show the departure of Caterina and Mischa while Dr. Marchetti begins to exert his power over Simona.

Both Der Eintänzer and La Ferdinanda end with the death (or near death) of a character. It is as though the terror in the filmic shadows speaks of this fear of death. In both cases it is the radiant and sensitive double who suffers—first Kathleen, who swings out of the window to her death, then Larry, nearly beaten to death in the woods because of his sensual and sensory freedom with the young gardener. The ceremony of death links Der Eintänzer to La Ferdinanda, as though Horn wants to expose the fact that every public act in front of a listener or spectator, even a blind one, becomes a symbolic ritual of sacrifice. The intellectual, the poet, and the artist communicate by means of simulated or actual death, achieved through existential anatomy or through the symbolic amputation of the self before the public. For Horn, the sacrifice consolidates the vitality of art. It symbolizes the rotation between death and life, the continuous exchange between mobility and immobility, the circularity of absence and renewal. La Ferdinanda’s final question is: will the peacock, vehicle of allegories and artistic metaphors, die? No! In the very last scene the doctor fires his rifle from the window, hitting the animal. Its feathers are covered in blood and its end seems certain, yet its death is placed in question by the final sequence of the film—a close-up shot of the peacock’s head; the eye opens and is fully alert.

From 1981 (the year of La Ferdinanda) to the present Horn has filled the rooms of museums and galleries with “marvels” and “remains” from her films. It is as though she would like to extend her symbolic and personal contact over the widest possible area. First at Documenta 7 in Kassel and at Gewad in Ghent, then at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, and recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the artist has presented a series of “machines” which establish continuity with the characters from her films. The aseptic halls of museums, almost like the interiors of a sanatorium, are filled with sculptures which have autonomous life and which are in continuous movement. There is the obsessive sound of the hammer against the wall or the nervous action of the fan opening and closing like the tail that, in other sculptures, is made sometimes of wool or of feathers, depending on the context. These are automatons who repropose the regal but mechanical ceremony of the peacock, as well as the impersonal comings and goings of the musician or the art historian, the soprano or the doctor. The feathers are now sharp, metallic thorns; they cleave the air and wander rigidly through nothingness.

Seeing these machines at work, as they obsessively scan the space, one can ironically and critically appreciate them for their virtuosity and their ever-greater splendor. With their steel apparatuses theycreate territories where the absurd, the whimsical, and the impossible are legitimate. Compared to earlier works, these mechanisms no longer wear zoomorphic masks; they recall them, but they begin to show their thorns, blades, wheels, and points. They are terrible marvels at the extreme limits of humanity, without hope. Shining and cold, they are triumphant machines. The only acid that can melt them down is to face them and reverse their solution.

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.