Rebecca Horn

Even before you took in the individual pieces of Rebecca Horn’s installation, waves of mechanically repetitive knocking, banging, rattling sounds hit your ears, sounds that created a secret relationship among the works and accompanied the visual connections like a subterranean echo. This echo filled the space with an atmosphere that tugged at your feelings without your being able to pinpoint exactly what it was that moved you. No one could have left these rooms without feeling that their senses had been heightened to the utmost, like the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The longer you stayed, the stronger the idea grew that you were a witness to some kind of secret ritual being enacted by the repetitive movements of the apparatus–a field of events over which you had no influence and whose agents took no note of you whatsoever. The dissonant rhythm of repetitive noises and movements produced its own time-continuum, and from the perspective of everyday reality the entire installation appeared to be an enclave whose boundaries imperceptibly collapsed in upon themselves.

What kind of works are these that evoked this sort of impression with such force? In the middle of the main room was Die Verlobten (The engaged couple, 1987), a pair of long, thin steel rods suspended from the ceiling, one of which nearly reached a closed, mercury-filled glass cone directly below it on the floor, while the other one—hooked up to a motor—swung back and forth over a short, tapered rod projecting from the floor, almost but never quite touching it. Rod and cone are of course conventional sexual symbols, but the way in which Horn uses these signs tells us a great deal about the larger context of her imagery. If contact were actually achieved by the first rod and the cone, the results would be destructive, as the cone would shatter and the poisonous mercury would escape. The constantly frustrated possibility of contact between the other two rods expresses this same quality of futility in a different way. Horn expanded on this theme with a work in the second room, Der Zwitter (The hybrid, 1987), which consists of two large, glass cones suspended from the ceiling; one of these, with a hole at its tapered end, was filled with black powder (iron oxide) that passed through the hole and fell to the floor, where it formed an inverted conical mound reaching almost to the tapered end of the cone, while the other cone, which had no hole, was filled with lustrous yellow sulfur powder and then sealed shut.

The second room contains a window with textured glass, and Horn used black putty to trace the patterns of branches that rest against the glass from outside; and in one corner of the window she placed a small, motorized hammer—Specht (Woodpecker, 1987)—so that it almost but not quite hit the glass. Near Die Verlobten in the main room, she fastened a pair of binoculars to the top of a rod at eye levelDie Gouvernante (The governess, 1987)–through which one could see Specht slightly magnified. Here, Horn breaks with the couple theme and alludes to another kind of contact, i.e., visual contact (and perhaps voyeurism).

Where actual contact does take place, it occurs as a mechanical act. Arthur, 1987, consists of a small motorized hammer secured to a wall of the main room so that it hit a bundle of coal at short intervals, causing flakes of coal and coal dust to shower down into a pair of men’s patent-leather shoes mounted just below. For the Bestäubungsmaschine (Pollinating machine, 1987), Horn hooked up a paintbrush to a motor so that it would dip into a bowl of black paint and spatter the wall above it. The subject and object of this act were equally affected, for streaks of paint appeared indiscriminately over portions of the wall and the mechanism and even dripped down to the floor. An anthropomorphic interpretation of the installation—which is suggested by the titles of some of the pieces—is only the most obvious aspect of what the individual works evoke. When we looked through the binoculars, we saw only the tiny area surrounding the “woodpecker”; perhaps a different vantage point can change the events that we see. The stimulation of overly heightened sensory receptivity is the only common denominator among all the connotations suggested by the works.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.