Los Angeles

Rebecca Horn

Burnett Miller Gallery

“Diving through Buster’s Bedroom,” Rebecca Horn’s first West Coast solo exhibition, consisted of 18 large-scale mechanized sculptures created in close thematic relationship to her latest film, Buster’s Bedroom, 1989–90. Although it was possible to read the installation independently of the film—the sculptures’ references to reptilian metamorphosis, alchemy, and mechanical conjunction/dislocation are familiar themes in Horn’s oeuvre—the cross-pollination of ideas and symbology between the two media was crucial to Horn’s undertaking. The three-dimensional works not only reference ideas and characters in the film but, in many cases, are used as actual props. As a result, our usual free-associative reading of Horn’s work in relationship to her roots in body sculpture and Beuysian metaphysics was overridden by the dominant themes and narrative of the film itself.

Unfortunately, Buster’s Bedroom, which was making its U.S. premier in conjunction with the exhibition, is a major disappointment, undermined by both narrative and directorial shortcomings. Structured as a surreal odyssey in the tradition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the film traces the symbolic journey from desert to ocean, of Micha (Amanda Ooms), a young film student in search of the spirit of her hero, Buster Keaton. Micha’s quest leads her to Nirvana House, a sanatorium near Santa Barbara where Keaton was once actually hospitalized for alcoholism at the end of the silent era. As is the case in most filmic sanatoriums, the goings on at Nirvana House tread a thin line between sanity and insanity, reality and dream, poison and cure. This ambiguity is further reinforced by the fact that the hospital’s chief doctor has just died of an accidental overdose, and one of the patients, the snake-breeding “Doctor” O’Connor (Donald Sutherland), has been elected to impersonate him. The other inmates are a strange collection of washed-up Hollywood types: O’Connor’s psychosomatically wheelchair-bound “patient,” Diana Daniels (Geraldine Chaplin), prima donna Serafina Tannenbaum (Valentina Cortese), who reenacts scenes from her former triumphs while keeping a refrigerator full of butterflies, a neurotic pianist (Ari Snyder), a beekeeper (David Warrilow) and a gardener (Warhol factory alumnus Taylor Mead).

After an accident outside the front gates, Micha is admitted to the sanatorium where she quickly becomes O’Connor’s patient and latest guinea pig. Her presence ignites the repressed sensual and violent undercurrents already present in the relationships between the inmates, culminating in an unleashing of the ambiguous spiritual muse of Keaton himself, a combination of the comedic and tragic, the real and the surreal, the liberating and the repressed. Although the film owes certain debts to Luis Buñuel’s paeans to amour fou, it more accurately combines several well-trodden narrative paths: the “innocent abroad” surrealism of Roman Polanski’s What?, 1973, laced with the dark satire of Cul-de-Sac, 1966, the bitter cynicism of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, 1950, and the obsessive, mechanical somnabulism and blurring of doctor-patient identities in Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919.

These might have been fruitful sources for a fresh take on surrealist film practice, particularly the inflection of mechanical objects with psychological overtones, yet Horn’s obvious diffidence behind the camera produces an overt tendency toward alienating camp and Grand Guignol instead of the neutral, stone-faced “realism” that worked so effectively for both Buñuel and Keaton. Horn’s use of static camera and her predilection for medium shots tend to stress the spatially confining theatricality of the proscenium, instead of opening up cinematic space as a filmic paradigm for the imaginary and subconscious desires. One thinks, for example, of Keaton’s dreaming movie projectionist actively projecting himself, and by extension the audience, into the filmic narrative in Sherlock Jr., 1927. Horn’s film language, by contrast, seems much closer to the stagy, filmed vaudeville style of Charlie Chaplin, who was never noted for his imaginative use of the camera.

The problem of inextricably linking the exhibition with the film is that one tends to superimpose the contrived filmic narrative onto the installation’s free-floating signifiers. Thus the wheelchair that goes around in endless circles in a series of erratic spurts in Memorial Promenade, 1990, becomes inextricably tied to Diana Daniels’ psychosomatic condition. Similarly, the bed frame covered with blue mechanical butterflies in Lover’s Bed, 1990, becomes less a surreal catalyst to dream than a simple residue of Serafina Tannenbaum’s clichéd romantic obsessions. Horn’s allusions to Keaton seem intended to represent the liberating forces of insanity and creativity, yet her direct relationship between the mechanical signifiers within the installation and their filmic signifieds simply reinforces the artist’s own narrative hegemony. Instead of evoking a free-floating “spirit” to inspire a various reception, Horn gives us a staged seance directed by a fake medium, a paradigm of control that has more connection with the master narrative of contemporary Hollywood than the anarchic enterprise of Buster Keaton.

Colin Gardner