New York

Rebcecca Horn

Rebecca Horn’s Art Circus, 1988, the largest and most complex sculpture in this show, takes us into a space where time is experienced as a new, harrowing sensation. It consists of an egg balanced between two long steel needles, and glass cones fixed to the floor of the gallery. Everything is circumscribed by a large black circle on the floor—a circus ring. One needle, attached to the ceiling, moves with excruciating slowness in a spiral motion, starting perpendicular to the floor and gradually becoming parallel to it. Watching the complete movement of the needle takes quite a few minutes—the work seems to be challenging us to stand still.

Horn forces the viewer to respond according to the rhythm of the machine. Here, vision is just another modality of the body and loses its privileged place in the hierarchy of the senses. Time becomes a visual prosthetic: seeing does not take place in either an immediate or a contemplative manner. The beauty of these kinetic sculptures lies in part in their ability to objectify time. We are a people who have submitted ourselves to the rigors and discipline of technocentric chronology. Horn demonstrates that the art object can still galvanize powerful forces against the total enslavement of perception’s apparatus.

Horn’s sculptures bring the body and the machine together in order to show us the fragility of both things in time. In this show, Horn uses brushes, paint, and other artist’s materials as the formal elements of her sculpture. Brush Wings, 1988, is reminiscent of Butterfly Machine, 1986: the earlier work was made of feathers attached to a mechanism that would flap at regular intervals, while the newer sculpture is made of red and black paintbrushes. Feathers, which signify a deadened, idealized notion of the natural, have given way to the artist’s tools. Brush Wings possesses a biomorphic transference that the earlier piece did not quite achieve. These are wings without the body of Icarus, the body of the artist, flapping spasmodically, randomly, ineffectually against the wall.

Painting Machine, 1988, consists of paintbrushes attached to a clocklike spring mechanism. The brushes are released at intervals to snap crazily against the wall, as if they were actually painting. Splatters of paint cover the wall and floor near the piece. Attached at odd angles to the lower part of the wall underneath the mechanism are various empty frames, also covered with paint.

All of these kinetic sculptures—including Whip Machine and Beetles in Conversation, both 1988—produce a supernaturally keen perception of time. Every second is lived in an intense state of anticipation of some kind of violence. In the context of this work, it is worth mentioning Horn’s Das gegenläufige Konzert (The contrary-turning concert, 1987), an installation for the “Skulptur Projekte in Münster 1987.” The piece was created in a medieval stone fortress used by the Gestapo as a torture chamber during World War II, and dramatized the relationship between esthetic production, history, atrocity, and pain. The current show demonstrates that Horn is still preoccupied with these issues and is exploring more ways of representing the body and the human sensorium in states of extenuation.

The glass boxes in this show, which contain tubes of paint, knives, Chinese ink brushes, paintbrushes, copper wire, and other elements, are less effective than the kinetic work. They seem to be in a state of suspension between two modes of being. In these pieces, Horn abandons her extraordinary sensitivity to movement and shock.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin writes, that the “tasks which face the human apparatus at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is by contemplation alone. They are mastered gradually by habit under the guidance of tactile appropriation.” Benjamin was commenting on the unprecedented changes taking place in human perception and the price that was being paid for progress. More than ever, the dominant ideology produces images of technology as liberating, “time saving.” What are we saving time for? Horn addresses these questions as a visual artist in fascinating ways. She offers us an affirmation of the artistic or esthetic mode of production as something deeply corporal, tactile, subversive. Her work is powerful testimony to the possibilities of artistic production in its engagement and struggle with the unbearability of systematized and totalizing temporality.

Catherine Liu