Rebecca Horn

Galerie De France

Rebecca Horn has never stopped giving performances; her installations, no less than her films, are elaborately staged in time as well as space, and her poignantly humanized machines are also mechanized actors. In “La Lune rebelle-Concert Upside-Down” (both works 1991) the lead roles are accorded to a motley crew of manual typewriters and a grand piano. The once-proud typewriters, rendered obsolete (by electricity and word processors), hang bottoms up in the arcaded gallery entrance, intermittently clacking away and shifting their carriages with the help of a motorized hookup. At the end of the row, the “stars” of La Lune rebelle (Rebel moon)—an Underwood and a (German) Kappel—are suspended sideways in the fusional embrace of an electrical charge that mounts two wires between them and disappears with an amorous tremor above the watchful gaze of the mercury/moon on the floor below.

Punctuating this low-key cacophony are the periodic outbursts of the Concert Upside-Down that take place upstairs; while a pair of metronomes swings in and out of sync with implicit impatience, and three pairs of binoculars scan the scene from the far wall, the piano is unceremoniously suspended from the ceiling. Eventually, the top creaks open, the keyboard lid slides back, and all of a sudden the keys tumble out in disarray, with a burst of movement and disjointed sound, and the piano, like the typewriter/lovers downstairs (and many of the unsuspecting viewers), is left trembling in the aftermath. Another pause and the top creaks shut, pause, opens again, pause, and then, with the precision of a military maneuver or a chorus line, the keys snap themselves into a horizontal row and slide back into place, accompanied by the reverse plucking of the chords and the closing of the lid that signals the end of the “concert” and the beginning of the wait for the next.

The waiting, the repetition, the orchestration of chance are by now staples of Horn’s automated alchemy. Yet, they have lost none of their magic. No two performances are ever alike; there is always something new to discover within—and beyond—the motors, the cams, the familiar objects brought to life in unfamiliar situations. Amid the sounds of the moonstruck typewriters and the convulsive concert, a show-stealer called La Balançoire des papillons (The butterfly seesaw, 1991) goes through its silent motions in the middle of a wall: two pairs of blue-green butterfly wings fluttering up and down on the motorized path that never quite brings them together. Strictly speaking, the mechanical device is not new, nor is the drama of separation that it enacts. But the butterfly wings are hardly the same prototypical pair of hammers in Dialogue des marteaux (Dialogue of hammers, 1988), or the assortment of the feathers, paint brushes, rhinoceros beetles, and spoons that have followed over the years. La Balançoire des papillons is more lyrical, but also more fragile, and ultimately, more mortal. Like the piano, which, after nearly two months of giving its all, started getting stuck in midconcert, the butterfly wings grew noticeably tattered from the wear and tear of their trajectory.

This elegant balancing act between Eros and Thanatos receives a kind of literary gloss in the form of an eight-vitrine homage to philosopher Georges Bataille. Tucked away in the basement like footnotes, La Bibliothèque des animaux (The animals’ library, 1991) consists of torn-out pages from Bataille’s fiction collaged with flora and fauna. The result is more of an exercise than an experience, but it is revealing in its own way of yet another singular aspect of Horn’s sensibility. Between the airplane and the fax, it is not very hard to be an international artist and export one’s work to the four corners of the art world. But it is something else again to make that work respond to the space, the place, the culture where it is to be seen—to evoke Bataille in Paris, Buster Keaton in Los Angeles, and immigration (and before that, the “Art Circus”) in New York. In a world where universality has come to mean speaking English, this kind of cosmopolitanism is also an important discovery.

Miriam Rosen