Zurich

Rebecca Horn

Chinesische Verlobte (Chinese fiancée, 1976) was situated in the center of the show here in such a way that it connected the three exhibition spaces. This hexagonal black cubicle resembles a kiosk whose six open doors grant a view into and through it. When one enters the cubicle, a mechanism silently and slowly closes the doors, so gently that one is not tempted to withdraw. Then, in the constricting darkness inside, a whispering starts up in Chinese, an enveloping teasing and giggling. One is held captive not only literally but also by the enfolding sounds. One’s claustrophobia gradually eases, one’s shock yields to enchantment, the process of giving oneself up to the space and the darkness begins to be possible—then, suddenly, the doors open and the light streams in.

The range of sensations triggered by Chinesische Verlobte is also evoked by other objects and machines here. Horn is concerned with that area of sensation that cannot be fully plumbed, with an expansion of sensory experience. Paradoxically, she achieves this focus only through the imposition of various limitations. In Einhorn (Unicorn, 1971) the artist, wearing a horn, or antenna, on her head, also tied herself into a constricting corset. By restricting the freedom of her movement without diminishing its gracefulness, she was able to imply that the landscape through which she carried her horn was a cosmic one. In this context, the dance and ballet sequences in her films, Der Eintänzer (The dancing cavalier, 1978) and La Ferdinanda (1982), are probably also to be seen as metaphors—the dance is an emblem of a heightened gracefulness and sensibility that can be achieved only by strictest discipline.

Horn’s exploration of sensitivity and the pain, or perhaps the beauty, connected with it might derail into an insipid expression of Weltschmerz were it not for her intelligence and irony. In their elegance, her objects seem initially to refute comparison with the work of Samuel Beckett, but they are in fact thoroughly permeated with a Beckett-like wit. The essence of this gallows humor lies in the situation of people watching themselves trying to cope with the inevitable while knowing that it cannot be avoided. This same process takes place in the mind of the artist who sets in motion a chain of thought, the creation of an image, and confronts that mechanism of feelings by which our behavior is largely ruled. We resemble the migrating birds that Horn describes in Spiegelbad (Mirror bath, 1982). Responding to instinct, they circle over a particular spot in the Atlantic until they fall from the sky, dead from exhaustion. This spot is the place where Africa and South America split apart millions of years ago. Only the most insensitive of Horn’s birds, those that have repressed or lost their primordial instinct, ever reach land.

An aspect of this mechanism of feelings is also discussed in Ohnmacht der Gefuhle (Unconsciousness of feelings), a device in which two small revolving hammers move toward each other in an upward motion. The pattern is one of proximity, distance, and then again proximity, but the hammers cannot touch, so they fall back down in their loneliness in order to find, at least at their low point, a little closeness. The rhythm of their rise and fall is similar to that of Kleine Federrad (Small feather wheel, 1982), a machine that spreads the wings of a great white heron in a circle before collapsing them back into themselves. Horn’s machines beautifully achieve their goals: in their precise repetitive movements, beauty is united with discipline and restriction. As Horn suggests in Kasten für Phoenix (Boxes for Phoenix), beauty is the result of an alchemical purification, of a strict meditative exercise; beauty is the overcoming of the machine.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.