Rebecca Horn

German Sculptor, Filmmaker and Performance Artist

Born: March 24, 1944
Michelstadt, Germany
Looking back at my first pieces you always see a kind of cocoon, which I used to protect myself. Like the fans where I can lock myself in, enclose myself, then open and integrate another person into an intimate ritual. This intimacy of feeling and communication was a central part of the performances.

Summary of Rebecca Horn

Rebecca Horn has a longstanding interest in the creation of magical objects, which she infuses with both tenderness and pain. Her work looks back to alchemical explorations by the female Surrealists, and forward to large-scale contemporary, poetic, and mechanical sculptures. During childhood Horn endured the chaotic aftermath of post-war Germany and felt unnerved by her father's highly imaginative but frightening stories. In early adulthood, like Frida Kahlo, Horn experienced a profound change in direction and surge of inspiration following an extended illness. Also bed ridden, Horn started making soft sculptures with materials she could work with whilst recovering. Thus although the artist suffered from physical collapse, this was followed by a re-birth of sorts and in turn a heightened understanding of her own spiritual capacity and that of others. As result, Horn always makes art that "extends" outwards to best communicate with others. To this day, she lives within the rich and private, whilst paradoxically, transparent and revealing, real fantasy world that she has created for herself.


Progression of Art


Einhorn (Unicorn)

Einhorn (Unicorn) is a white wearable sculpture intended to be worn by a female performer. A cone-like structure, akin to the mythical creature's horn, is attached to the performer's head as an extension of her body using a series of horizontal and vertical fabric straps that run from the head, to the neck, and down the naked body. This is one of Horn's best-known works, as well as one of her earliest. Exhibited both as a sculptural object and in her influential film Performances II as part of a series of documented performances, the work challenges how we think about sculpture. Horn states that Unicorn was performed near Hamburg after having spent a year in a sanitorium following lung poising caused by glass fibres that she had inhaled whilst making work at Art College. As Horn had lived in total isolation for a full year, independent curator Sergio Edelsztein suggests that Unicorn, and other related 'extension' works, act as the artist's attempt to reach outwards and "restore communication with the outside world". Horn has also said of the work, "When I got out [of the sanatorium], I made that piece for one particular girl in a class of mine, Angela. It's dedicated to her. She had a very strange, stiff way of walking".

Architect and lecturer, Charles Holland, contributes that Horn's "early prosthetic extensions - gloves with foot-long fingers, a mask with numerous tiny pencils attached - take a simple bodily action and subject it to elongation and distortion. Supposedly straightforward functions, such as drawing or touching, become difficult and compromised, but are also given new meaning." Indeed, Unicorn extends the body and imbues the performer with an at once otherworldly and robotic quality. Although it is unlikely that Horn was familiar with Frida Kahlo's work at this time, the resemblance between this sculpture and Kahlo's 1942, Broken Column painting is uncanny. Both artists visualise trauma that they have experienced and transform this into meaning. As such, these art works move beyond individual traumatic experience and become instead ciphers for dealing with some of the most difficult and universal experiences of both physical and emotional pain, and the subsequent necessity to re-build.

Wearable sculpture - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


The Gigolo (Der Eintänzer)

The Gigolo is a 45 minutes feature film set in the artist's New York studio. Interweaving fantasy and reality, the film begins with Max (performed by Timothy Baum, Horn's long-term partner) playing the theme tune of the film The Third Man on a toy piano. After a ballerina arrives, and an argument breaks out between her and Max, twins enter the film, providing the haunting and mirror-like qualities of doubling and divided identity. Horn sets up an opposition between the genders, for instance in the creation of an argument, and by showing the capacity of the female twins to attract the attention of the male characters, Max and blind Frazer. When one of the twins is drawn to objects that she has found in Horn's studio, fantasy returns to reality and refers back to the artist herself again. There is a moment when one of the twins notices some hatpins and her attraction to these seems threatening. The ending of the film memorably involves one of the twins becoming tempted by a mechanical swing, then jumping to an image shot of a dead girl in the street outside Horn's studio.

The film features one of Horn's important sculptures, The Feathered Prison Fan. The work thus introduces an important and recurring material and theme for the artist, that of the feather. The feather and wings are long standing motifs associated with melancholy and the expression of creative anxiety. Since Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving of a large 'melancholy' angel, many artists have since re-visited this subject. Francesca Woodman made a series of photographs called On Being An Angel (at a similar time as Horn did this piece). There is a sense in both of these oeuvres that the artists are attracted to a more celestial (out of this world) existence, but at the same time attempt to manage and negotiate an everyday, earthly life. With the 'wings' looking like a cocoon but also being referred to as a 'prison', there is a simultaneous message that this way of being (highly thoughtful and imaginative) can be at once protective and restrictive.

Overall, as an abstract, surreal, and fantastic narrative, Horn's film helps to bring her body sculptures to life using a highly impressive melange of different media and styles. The curator, Valentina Ravaglia has described how in The Gigolo Horn's "mechanical sculptures serve as actors in the film whilst actors play their roles like dysfunctional machines." Here, the symbolism of Horn's moving sculptures standing as revealing replacements for the actual body becomes clear. In the film, the fragility of human life is exposed and the absurd nature of human relationships is suggested. The Gigolo, like Horn's other feature films, evokes strong psychoanalytic interpretations, and for some, possesses an alienating quality because characters are built of the imagination and do not necessarily make sense socially or rationally.

45 minute feature film


Exercise 8: Cutting One's Hair with Two Scissors at Once

Cutting One's Hair with Two Scissors at Once is the eighth part of Berlin Exercises: Dreaming under Water (1974-75), a series of recorded performances. In the first part of the color film, German actor Otto Sander is seen reading out the following text to camera: "Tongues flickering, their heads move back and forth until the scaly skin beneath the throat is touching. The instant physical contact is established, they begin to entwine. The aggressive fighting dance of the two partners is characterized by a gradual, mutual loss of momentum and the beating against each other of their forebodies. The jerkily undulating bodies wind so tightly around each other that the two snakemen merge into a single body whose two heads move back and fro in parallel. The fight is decided when the stronger animal has pressed his opponent down against the floor."

After this, Rebecca Horn emerges holding a pair of scissors in each hand, simultaneously cutting both sides of her long red hair. A tense atmosphere is created by the loud and constant sound of the scissors, as well as by Horn's fixed stare into camera. The intensity of Horn's gaze is challenged by the closeness of the scissors to her eyes, and here; the suggested struggle might be between the scissors and Horn's clarity of vision, or it could be between violence and human resilience. In the last part of the film, a window in the room seems to open by itself, and text overlaid on this image translates as: "When a woman and her lover lie on one side looking at each other, and she twines her legs around the man's legs, with the window wide open, it is the oasis."

The words spoken at the start of the film create a powerful description of a physical fight; these are followed by the implicit battle between the two pairs of scissors to remove Horn's hair. The bluntness of the cuts deliberately reject notions of an ideal feminine appearance, and her stare suggests an attitude of defiance in the face of constraints placed on the body and mind. Overall, the act of hair cutting, as both the voiceover and end text also suggest, is always connected to romantic relationships. Frida Kahlo cut her long locks when she divorced from Diego Rivera, and such is a recurring theme for women as they suffer loss in love. Taken in comparison to Marina Abramović's classic performance Rhythm O, who aside from this performance made many works that dissect the dynamics of relationships with her partner Ulay, Horn commits the act of hair cutting unto herself, whilst Abramović submitted herself to the will of an audience. The theme and act also share meaning and tension with other key performance works by female artists at a similar time, for example Yoko Ono's documented live performance Cut Piece (1964) and Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).

Film - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Concert for Anarchy

In Concert for Anarchy a grand piano is hung upside down from the ceiling, high above viewers' heads. Every few minutes, the keys spring out from the piano with a sudden, unnervingly loud motion, leaving them splayed, like fingers protruding from the space where the smooth and ordered keyboard would usually be. Meanwhile, the lid of the piano falls open to show the instrument's inner workings. After a few minutes, the keys retract and the lid closes, and the piano is then ready to repeat the same clumsy and unpredictable cycle once again. Appropriately for this work, Horn has said, "I like my machines to tire...They are more than objects. These are not cars or washing machines. They rest, they reflect, they wait." Despite its repetition, the operation of the work fails to become familiar; its capacity to render viewers uncertain persists.

In this way, Horn has here personified the piano, opening up its interior for dissection as one would a body under operation. Horn wants to get to the innards of things, both physically and emotionally. The experience for the viewer, with the heavy thing precariously hanging, is always one of impending threat and risk. Whilst music usually brings lightness, the object shows its heaviness and thus reveals the artist's continued interest in reaching a balance between these two states. Indeed, prior associations with pianos are disrupted and their intended effect, to produce sweet music, is literally turned on its head as proposed 'anarchy' serves to challenge the symbolism we typically recall upon seeing this object. The symbolism stretches deep, for Horn herself has spoken evocatively about this work: "the piano in my installation Concert for Anarchy... embodies the purity of a music which the artist is no longer able to create within the bounds of his real life. It is the concerts of the imagination, which still embody freedom and the ideal - in the reality of his artistic life the artist seeks out disruptive factors which will preserve the purity of musical experience in his inner self. This represents a form of total rejection of the surrounding society, enabling anarchy to be lived out in the imagination." Thus the object is fuelled by both poetry and anxiety, the typical marriage found in artwork by Rebecca Horn.

Mechanised sculpture - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Tower of the Nameless

Tower of the Nameless consists of a complex and precarious installation of ladders and violins that reach up from floor to the balcony of a private house in Vienna. The work was made in homage to the victims of, and the refugees created by the war in former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. Horn described how, "attached to the ladder tower were nine violins, mechanically playing to themselves in a manic, melancholy sigh...I called [named] it...after a small cemetery on the banks of the Danube just outside Vienna, which is populated by the unidentified bodies of those found floating lifeless down the river." Horn also exhibited the work at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover in 1997, and it is one of many monumental works that the artist has made to commemorate horrific struggles experienced by people in war.

Art and architecture historian Carl Haenlein, has described how, "the form this work relates to the ancient Babylonian dream of the artist touching the heavens by erecting a columned house whose roof reaches high above the clouds." While Haenlein connects this to the "speculative utopian architecture" of artists like the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, the evident fragility of Horn's installation additionally suggests threat to viewers below and thus implies that any idealistic search is precarious and usually compromised by discord. Following the break down of the Balkan states, Horn comments that: "Vienna's underground was populated by the refugees war. These abandoned people were hiding in doors and subway tunnels....This [music] was their only way of expressing pain; they couldn't speak German, they had no passports, no identity, they were on the run." Reflecting on Horn's statement, the placement of this installation in a richly decorated private home brings the displaced refugees inside from doorways and tunnels and ironically brings music used to communicate nameless status inside a high brow Viennese home.

Indicative of her wider work as a politically passionate artist, Horn has spoken of being influenced by major world events including the Gulf War, and of course, the Holocaust.

Site-specific installation in a baroque stairwell - Naschmarkt, Vienna, Austria


Concert for Buchenwald

Rebecca Horn produced this major site-specific installation in response to the victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and specifically to confront the legacy of the Holocaust more widely. The first part of installation was located in a disused tram shed in Weimar, a city near the site of the death camp. Inside, a section of train track stretched from one end of the room to the other. At the far end of the track a wagon, brought especially from Buchenwald, moved up and down in a short section of track periodically hitting the wall and setting off an electrical charge that would run up a glass tube; for Horn this symbolized the exit of souls. The rest of the train track was covered with piles of broken musical instruments and their cases, all of which Horn had collected from different European cities, and which represented the barbaric instruction to leave all treasured personal possessions outside concentration camps. Glass walls covering the length of both sides of the room, on either side of the track, were filled with wood ash. For Horn, victims were not only killed but also disappeared, and so the ash represented 6 million handfuls of ash, one for each victim of the Holocaust.

The second part of the installation took place in a castle at the foot of the hill on which the Buchenwald camp was built, a location that referred to Weimar's rich cultural history. Looking at the castle from the front, viewers could see three lit windows and one dark window. In the one darkened room there was a conducting stick and a cello playing by itself. In another part of the installation a collection of large sculptural beehives were hung from the ceiling and illuminated by searchlights, which were then in turn reflected in rotating mirrors. A rock periodically crashed from the ceiling on rope, landing on a pile of mirrors and detritus, suggesting sadness, violence and impending doom.

For Horn light and shadow was important to this work, and contemporary conflicts, such as Kosovo, became equally as important as the historical starting point. Horn has said of Germany and of the German people, "we don't know where we go". Her work suggests that there is now a national responsibility to reflect deeply, to warn future generations of potential catastrophes, and to actively work towards the prevention of heinous crimes. The work can be discussed alongside that of other artists and filmmakers who also endeavor to communicate the trauma of the Holocaust, such as Christian Boltanski, Rachel Whiteread, Michael Haneke, and Elfriede Jelinek.

Site-specific Installation - Weimar, Germany

Biography of Rebecca Horn


Rebecca Horn was born in the midst of war, in 1944 in Michelstadt, Hesse, Germany. While Horn has not discussed her childhood or family in depth, introducing only snippets, we know that her parents were industrialists and her uncle - to whom she was close - was an artist. She has expressed a deep love for the Romanian governess who looked after her as a young child recalling that it was the governess who spent much time drawing with her at around three or four years old. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War affected Horn greatly, and as such the experience penetrates many of her artworks to come. After the war, Horn and her fellow Germans could hardly speak their own language because, blamed for the atrocities of the older generation, they had become a hated people. Horn learnt to speak both French and English but she preferred drawing as a way to communicate that remained untainted and universal.

As a young girl, Horn read Johann Valentin Andreae's The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616) an early, highly symbolic and evocative book that explored the transformation of the soul. She also read Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus (1914) in which visually elaborate stories were woven around the absurd inventions of a scientist. Both books are understood to have nurtured Horn's interest in alchemy, Surrealism, machinic invention, and absurdity. Indeed, in the same celestial and otherworldly vein, Horn's father told her stories of dragons, goblins, and witches, setting the stories in their own local environment (perhaps he was a fan of The Brothers Grimm). Although likely an early source of inspiration for the artist, she has also said herself that her father's stories often triggered deep anxiety. Her father also loved opera, which may have influenced the artist's important relationship to sound and music.

Practically as well as emotionally, Horn experienced childhood as an unsettling time. She changed boarding schools often and sometimes travelled with her father on business trips. She once ran away from school afraid that the witches from one of her father's stories would follow her. She had a further traumatic experience at school when she lost control of her bladder in a situation of high pressure having been demanded to lead prayers. Such intense rigidity and irrational discipline found in school environments has also become a recurrent subject in Horn's later work. For example, in her work The Moon, the Child and the River of Anarchy (1992), old Austrian primary school desks are hung from the ceiling, lined up neatly in rows as they might have been in a classroom. The desks are connected by a series of tubes, as though alive, albeit barely sustained, and somehow 'treated' against their will.

Early Training and Work

At University Horn initially studied economics and philosophy, having been advised to do so by her pragmatic parents. However, after six months Horn - initially in secret - began taking art classes on the side. She started full-time study at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg in 1963, much to the disapproval of her parents. Her drawings at art school principally explored the female body and ways that it could be transformed. Many of Horn's appendages for the body, realised in later performance and video works, can be found in sketchbooks from as early as 1966.

It was at art school that Horn began to make large-scale sculptures using mainly polyester and fibreglass. Sadly, due to producing these works without using a mask she became very ill in 1964. She went to hospital and then spent a very isolated, long, and tragic year convalescing in a sanatorium. Shockingly, whilst Horn was recovering from lung poisoning, both of her parents died. It was at this time, Horn said, that she "started to develop ideas for communicating with people through my work." She designed and made body sculptures out of fabric while she was ill, these were appendages to and extensions of the body that materialized later in various forms, including a Unicorn horn, feathers made into a mask that covered the face, and a mask with protruding pencils that the wearer could draw with. In an interview Horn said, "I wanted to pass on this experience of being tied to a bed." Arm Extensions (1968) was her first body extension that she said turned the wearer "into an earthbound object."

Once recovered and back at the academy, Horn began to collaborate with a fellow student to create the 1973 film in which her body sculpture Unicorn (1970-72) was performed. Her early performance films were made whilst still completing her art education. Indeed it was while Horn was still a young artist, during the late 60s and through the 70s, that she became a recognized figure in the wider art world. She was the youngest artist to show at Documenta 5 in 1972, curated by Harald Szeemann. As an opportunity to meet many successful and international artists of the time, this was an artistic breakthrough moment for Horn.

Mature Period

Horn moved to New York in 1972 after exhibiting at Documenta 5 and stayed there for 9 years. During this time, she produced films and sculptural works including her first mechanical sculptures. In 1978 Horn made The Gigolo (Der Eintänzer) and The Feathered Prison Fan. The characters that feature in these films all symbolize people who visited the artist's studio, in her imagination. Now removing herself physically from the work, she introduced proxies instead, including her partner, and thus continued to refer back to her own life in surreal and self-referential ways.

The artist returned to Europe in the early 1980s and produced a large body of mechanical sculptures that were set to unnerve gallery audiences.

In the late 1980s, Horn travelled to Los Angeles to research the American filmmaker, Buster Keaton. Horn's friend, Conceptual artist John Baldessari talked of how Horn identified with Keaton and stated that, "a way to understand Horn is to look at his films." Horn too has said that she related to Keaton's tragic stories about his own experience that he then transformed in a Surrealist way. This admiration and interest in shared themes, led to Horn's most ambitious feature film, Buster's Bedroom made in 1991. In this film Micha Morgan played the heroine and also served as Horn's alter ego. It is clear that many key works by Horn serve as an analogy for her own life and more generally, as an allegory of the creative process.

During the 1980s and 90s Horn produced a number of major site-specific works that responded directly to places imbued with great social and political significance. These happenings were sometimes highly sensitive sites where horrific war crimes had been committed. Works such as Concert in Reverse (1997) and Concert for Buchenwald (1999) were haunting responses to a former Nazi execution site, and to a former tram depot where atrocities have also taken place. Horn has spoken with great assurance of her rooted belief that artists have an important political role to play in society. In an interview with art and architecture historian Carl Haenlein, Horn said:

"What interests me most is how I can use creativity to maintain openness and curiosity. I have never discarded my yearning for change. I am interested in scientific developments and the effort involved in drawing together the most diverse forms of experience. We suffer from fragmentation and isolation. Only once we have overcome this condition and people from all walks of life join together will we be able to foster new hope."

The solitary nature of human existence has become a recurring theme for Horn, the question of how one contends and lives with this condition, whilst at the same time endeavoring to defend and communicate with groups of people.

Late Period and Current Work

Rebecca Horn lives in Berlin and Paris, but has lived in many international cities, often moving to a city if she is offered an exhibition there. Horn has spoken evocatively and positively of her experience of travel. She has also spoken of her grandmother who died just after she was born. Also called Rebecca, her grandmother moved around constantly through six wars - something Horn described as gypsy-like movement.

Speaking in 2000 of her experience creating artwork in Münster at the site of a former SS interrogation centre, Horn addressed the impact of her provocative artworks. She sees it as her given role to "drill a little hole" in a problem that exists in a place or social situation, and as such to expose the problem for open discussion. Therefore, as another key reason for her constant travel, always challenging prevailing cultural thoughts or norms, Horn understands that many people experience her as a disruptive and, potentially, an unwelcome force.

Horn has a long-term partner Timothy Baum and the couple have a son together. Baum is a dealer of Surrealist art and produced 'Nadada', a poetry journal that had a short run in the 1960s. In a 2014 interview, Horn revealed that her son is the only person that she will allow to witness her creative process; the commercial gallery that represents her - The Sean Kelly Gallery in New York - published a book of photographs that her son took whilst his mother was painting. Horn rarely speaks of her personal life, but in 2001 she published a book titled 'All these Black Days', which she describes as "Postcard collages and texts by Rebecca Horn sent to Timothy Baum and friends". This emotive and poetic set of texts are not dated and do not name Horn's friends, but the fact of its publication does demonstrate her intention to communicate all of her feelings whilst simultaneously retaining private intimacy.

The Legacy of Rebecca Horn

Nicholas Serota, former curator of Tate Modern gallery in London has described how, while still a very young artist Rebecca Horn "was breaking new ground between film, performance and objects." Talking about her body sculptures, that the Tate had recently acquired, he called them a "singular body of work in European art of the early 1970s." Indeed, Horn became a key figure in a moment for art that challenged and changed formal ideas. The author, Jeanette Winterson, has described Horn as performing a role akin to an artist-inventor or alchemist, and as possessing a capacity to produce artworks that rouse powerful elemental forces and emotions.

Importantly, Horn is part of a group of female artists exploring the body through performance as part of the second wave of feminism during the 1960s and 1970s. Recalling some works by the late Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta, she makes ritualistic use of natural materials including blood and feathers and uses these to examine boundaries between the human/animal, the natural and the manmade, and between the excess and containment of emotions. Comparable to Louise Bourgeois, she became fascinated early on in her career by the use of soft textile materials as being well apt for imitating and exploring the human body, and like Frida Kahlo, she has devoted her lifetime to a thorough exploration of the limits and potentiality that is born of pain. She is thus well situated amongst other highly influential and visionary female artists. Not only making sculptures or conducting performances however, Horn transformed - what was often a largely male-dominated area of art making - the realm of Kinetic and mechanical art.

As truly multi-talented, Horn has also been described by the Tate Modern curator, Valentina Ravaglia, as "arguably the first artist-turned-feature-filmmaker of the post-war generation". Horn's films demonstrate an ambitious extension of her desire to disrupt familiar ways of thinking about the body, human relationships, and the world. As is typical of the work of Horn, a simultaneously elusive and powerful subjectivity remains at the heart of all that she does. While it is impossible to think of the surreal films of Matthew Barney before the work of Horn, it is also notable (while he does not identify her as a direct influence), to consider recent successful Hollywood productions by artist Steve McQueen in light of Horn's pioneering feature filmmaking.

Furthermore, Horn is part of an important generation of artists who have powerfully addressed the Holocaust - both the experience of such and its legacy - including Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, and Anselm Kiefer. Horn has drawn upon her experiences growing up in post-war Germany to develop an incredibly powerful and evocative artistic language that speaks out for positive social and political change.

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