New York

Rebecca Horn

In conceiving the Inferno-Paradiso Switch, 1993, Rebecca Horn began with an erotically charged image: “two rival guns shoot each other with bullets that melt like a kiss of death.” This paranoid vision evolved into a milky drop of water falling from a great distance to form the delicate psychosexual center of her take on The Divine Comedy. This two-part installation at the Guggenheim’s uptown and downtown spaces spookily evoked the dazzling ether of Dante’s Paradiso and the “tear-soaked ground”—the rain, the mud, the depressive stink—of his Inferno. In the grimly claustrophobic downtown half, crazily stacked psychiatric beds created a vision of consciousness in near isolation, surrounded by submerged life-forces—dark, dripping water and hissing, ticking machines. A nether-world loony-bin, it contrasted sharply with the uptown installation and its disruption of Dante’s elaborate moral order, for which Frank Lloyd Wright’s archetypal structure, with its snowy ramps and sunny oculus, provided an ideal setting.

The show served primarily as a retrospective of Horn’s career, and included many pieces that have appeared in earlier installations as well as most of her films and the extraordinary prosthetic objects she created for use in her body-oriented performances of the ’70s. Because the films were shown on a video monitor, which diminished their considerable effect, her objects and machines became the lifeblood of the exhibition. It has been said that Horn’s machines invoke cinematic space, and the artist herself compares them to film, saying, “I love cinema. I love the precision. It’s almost the same as constructing a machine.” Horn’s objects, much like cinema, can flood a room with desire, and their temporal dimension recalls the experience of watching a film. Many also evoke the poker-faced dream imagery of classic Surrealist films. The pistols and mirrors of Rooms of Mutual Destruction, 1992, for example, echo the guns that fire into the eye of the audience in Entr’acte, 1924, by Francis Picabia and René Clair.

The thunderous crash of Concert for Anarchy, 1990, an inverted, hanging grand piano periodically vomiting its wooden entrails, and the two glass funnel breasts of Paradiso, 1993, looking every hit as creepy as celestial as they dripped milky fluid into the abyss, signaled the climactic moment. These works brought to mind the vertiginous outer circles of Dante’s paradise, but the musical harmonies of his starry heaven were transposed into the discordant cries, crashes, and whirs of restive automatons.

In Horn’s oeuvre, being is always a function of desire. The slowly fluttering wings of Blue Butterfly Machines, 1993, suggested an impulse toward lightness, toward moments of bliss, while Thermomètre d’amour, 1985, described sexual love as a harrowing yet exquisite attenuation. Filled with red liquid and crowned with twig antlers, this glass thermometer’s temperature marks began with “solitude” and extended to “madness” and “disintegration.” Although the show’s pivotal motif may have been a falling drop of liquid, the most indelibly terrifying remained a kiss—the one in Kiss of the Rhinoceros, 1989, a brutally bisected, chthonic deity. In Dante’s text, those who love blindingly are relegated to hell, while Horn’s mechanical universe, on the other hand, is governed by excess.

K. Marriott Jones