Rebecca Horn: corporeal vision

As a visual arts medium, performances rely on immediacy and unfolding live action to engage the spectator. The problem is that this effect can only be fully experienced as long as the performance lasts. Performances are, after all, meant to be transient, a quality that their documentation in pictures or videos serves as a reminder of. This is probably why most gallery exhibitions on the subject of an artist’s performances often have a dull, post-event feel. This is far from being the case in the exhibition «Rebecca Horn, Performances 1970-75,» a unique showing of the artist’s work in Greece currently on view at the Kappatos Gallery. The photographs on display are documentations of the performances that the internationally acclaimed German artist made at the beginning of her career. But rather than appearing like fragments of a process or the visual stills of motion, they are also autonomous images that can be enjoyed for their austere, statuesque quality and their sense of an object’s shape or texture. In part, this is because Horn’s performances are closely tied to her so-called body-sculptures that feature in her photographs and resemble surreal apparatuses attached to the human body. Her body-sculptures led Horn to explore the crossover between an object, sculpture, bodily movement and space. This is what led her to her performances (in essence sculpture in motion) and shortly afterward, her films and videos. Then came the sprawling installations, each resembling a microcosm made of motorized, kinetic objects caught in a strange, almost filmic interplay. In Rebecca Horn’s work, each medium contains the other: Sculpture blends into performance and a performance often crystallizes into an object which also animates an installation. The 45-minute documentary included in the exhibition helps show the interconnections in the work of this wonderfully versatile and methodical artist. There is also Rebecca Horn’s two-hour film «Buster’s Bedroom» from 1990 (the artist both directed and wrote the script), a surreal unfolding of events starring Donald Sutherland and Geraldine Chaplin. But the main focus points are the photographs of Horn’s imaginative performances, the medium that in many ways contains the seeds of her later works. In «Unicorn,» one of the most famous performances from the early 1970s, a woman clad in a strange, band-like contraption that ends in a unicorn (the medieval sign of purity) is seen walking across a field in an almost ritualistic procession. In «White Body Fan,» a fan-like object is adjusted to a woman’s body and unfolds cyclically around it with every movement. In «Movable Shoulder Extensions,» two black sticks are tied onto the shoulders and across the chest and connected by straps to the thighs. As the performer moves, the projections of the apparatus move in a scissor-like fashion. Somewhat like ‘living sculptures,’ made of apparatuses that exaggerate or constrain parts of the human body, these early works are concerned with the relationship between space and the corporeal. There are allusions to ritual and fairy tale but also a feeling of absolute discipline and constriction mixed with a sense of the body’s vulnerability. In part, those works capture the artist’s own feeling of pain and constriction, and a simultaneous desire to regain contact with her surroundings which she experienced while recovering from a disease caused by the use of polystyrene in her art school days. This might also explain the works’ sensitivity to the human senses, not just the visual but also the tactile. In «Finger Gloves,» for instance, the performer touches objects through elongated, stiff-fingered gloves, thus drawing attention to how art extends beyond visual stimulus. Art as an encompassing, sensory experience is an idea that repeatedly comes up in later works. In the installation «Forest of Blindfolded Singers» from 1991, for example, 15 pairs of suspended field glasses turning restlessly challenge the notion of visuality. So does the use of binoculars, a recurrent motif in the artist’s work. In one part of another work entitled «Blind Control,» made for the artist’s London retrospective at the Tate and the Serpentine Gallery in 1994 (Horn had also done a retrospective at the Guggenheim a year before that), a long thin bar that moves across the floor is meant to remind us of a blind man’s stick. Horn’s works, particularly her installations, make use of sound, movement and space to create entire, richly nuanced situations in which something is almost always about to happen. In «Concert for Anarchy,» for example – one of the artist’s most impressive installations – the keys of a grand piano hanging upside down from the ceiling (part of a broader installation) suddenly bursts into spasmodic violence and noise only to retract a few moments later. A balance about to be broken, situations teetering on the edge, subtle tensions, control paired with a sense of uncertainty; they all come up in Rebecca Horn’s cool, cerebral, yet at the same time emotionally charged works. Her art often seems about reordering the flow of energy. Her works are like circuits created by motorized objects expanding through space. Sometimes, the circuit extends beyond the actual exhibition space: in «El Rio de la Luna,» a large installation cut through with streams of mercury, one part of the work was shown at an old factory on the outskirts of Barcelona and the second at a shady hotel in the city’s Barrio Chino red-light district. Strangely beguiling, at times disturbing, but emotionally compelling, Horn’s works allude to sexuality, fantasy, desire and to the precarious balance between control and anarchy. They are all ideas that originate in Rebecca Horn’s performances – the subject of this distinctive Athens exhibition – and unfold in the richly varied work of one of the most acclaimed international artists. «Rebecca Horn, Performances 1970-75» at the Kappatos Gallery (6 Aghias Irinis & Athinas Street, 210.321.7931) to June 7.

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