by Dilpreet BhullarJun 17, 2023
When I met German artist Rebecca Horn in 2012, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), the singularly striking feature about her was how she occupied the space with her presence. She did not say much but looked at me with those steely blue-green eyes, her face crowned by a mass of carrot-coloured hair and her lips pursed in a polite but terse smile. I felt I was in the presence of a great performance artist. As the conversation flowed between us, she began to open up and soon, she was telling me how setting up the NGMA was a very ’interesting process‘ and that being in India was truly ’humbling‘. Horn was in India for her solo show Passage Through Light that was hosted at the NGMA in collaboration with the ‘Germany and India 2011-2012 Infinite Opportunities’ programme and the Max Mueller Bhavan, in 2012.
Horn is considered to be one of the most versatile and creative artists in Germany today, with a vast body of work behind her, from her early performance pieces like Unicorn (1970), Pencil Face Mask (1972), her experiments with hydraulics operated musical instruments - Concert for Anarchy (1990) - to her more recent take on urban spaces in Jungle Light (2012), which she showed especially in India at the NGMA.
Emerging onto the art scene in the late 1960s, Horn was part of a generation of artists whose work challenged the institutions, forces and structures that governed not only the art world, but society at large. In art this meant a renewed critical focus on the human body, contesting the commodification of art objects by foregrounding the individual. This focus on the human body took on a particular personal resonance for Horn, who was confined to hospitals and sanatoria for much of her early 20s after suffering from severe lung poisoning, while working unprotected with polyester and fibreglass at Hamburg’s Academy of the Arts.
For those in the UK, do not miss dropping by the Tate Modern as Horn is showing works there till February 2020, and is conducting a workshop on performance art. Her works on display will be the iconic Finger Gloves that consists of two black prostheses, each with five thin, rigid, metre-long ‘fingers’ made out of wood and fabric. Each prosthesis is designed to be worn on the hand of a performer, attached to the wrists with black straps. The performer’s fingers control the fingers of the prostheses, as Horn has explained, “The finger gloves are made from such a light material that I can move my fingers without effort. I feel, touch, grasp with them, yet keep a certain distance from the objects that I touch. The lever action of the lengthened fingers intensifies the sense of touch in the hand. I feel myself touching, see myself grasping, and control the distance between myself and the objects.” (Quoted in Haenlein 1997, p.58, Rebecca Horn: the glance of infinity, monograph published by New York: Scalo; New York, N.Y)
Developed from preparatory drawings (Untitled 1968-9, Tate T12784, and Untitled 1968-9, Tate T12785), Finger Gloves forms part of Horn’s series of bodily extension pieces. Other works from this series offer prosthetic enlargements for the face (Trunk 1967-9, Tate T07855), the arms (Arm Extensions 1968, Tate T07857), and the head (Head Extension 1972, Tate T07861). While these works seem like tools for improving human capability, the resulting effects are often debilitating or grotesque, serving only to draw attention to the limitations of the wearer’s body.
Horn has made work in a variety of media throughout her career, from drawing to installation, writing to filmmaking. Yet, it is with her sculptural constructions for the body that she has undertaken the most systematic investigation of individual subjectivity. Her bodily extensions, for example, draw attention to the human need for interaction and control while also pointing to the futility of ambitions to overcome natural limitations. Similarly, her constructions, despite their medical imagery, are deliberately clumsy and functionless, while other works attest to the unacknowledged affinities between humans, animals and machines.