Rebecca Horn

Rebecca Horn
Harvard Art Museum
November 16, 2014 – May 10, 2015

Appropriately, Work in Progress, Rebecca Horn’s exhibition at the recently re-opened Harvard Art Museum, begins with an egg. The first in a series of the sculptures that occupy the exhibition space, along with installation, painting and photography, the cross section of a goose egg is impressed into a lead container and paired with copper box with the work’s title embossed onto the molten lid: Missing Full Moon (1989, edition 10/10). This gesture of duality points to themes of containment and release, subjects that are taken up elsewhere in Horn’s prolific practice and throughout the exhibition.

At the far end of the space are five photographs from Horn’s Performance Edition series (1971–72). In each of the images, custom-tailored body extensions enclose, contort, and extend the wearer’s frame. Wrapped tightly around the torso and limbs, fabric binds like a bandage, stringently containing the figure. And yet there is always an element breaking out of this hold, stretching the body’s distribution vertically and horizontally. The frame is permitted a new range of motion, aided by horned and winged armatures, marking the relationship between the body and how it moves through space. In Handschuhfinger (1972, AP edition of 12), for instance, as the artist bends over slightly to pick up an ambiguous item, the distance between hand and object is abridged by long, black gloves. Like stilts for the hand, the Finger Gloves (1973, edition 8/10) shift the sensory path, truncating the negative space between inanimate and animate forms.

Horn’s interest in recasting the body’s ability to fill vacant spaces also extends to an object’s capacity to do the same, as with the newly commissioned Flying Books Under Black Rain Painting (2014). Spilling out into the lobby and spanning the main and lower levels, a kinetic sculpture activates a device that sprays black paint onto a two-storied wall. Gravity does the rest, carrying the paint downward, drizzling the otherwise white surface with the tarred markings of the installation. Aside from the wall there are other receptacles for the paint: three opened books (Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Franz Kafka’s Amerika, and James Joyce’s Ulysses), chosen for their significance in the university context, are mechanized to slightly flap their hard-bound covers. The pages of these texts dutifully accept the paint, although it blemishes their content, rendering it ultimately unreadable. As with the Performance Edition series, various materials are put towards surveying dimensionality and space. The paint fills the voided expanse between the motorized contraptions (the sprayer and books) just as the body extensions expand anatomical boundaries, enacting a protracted radius of motion. Horn offers a kind of push and pull between limits and possibilities, stretching the limits and challenging the possibilities of movement and connectivity. In the process, she unfurls her own dynamic directional planes.

Installed in cases designed by the artist, the exhibition’s sculptural works provide an overview of Horn’s “work in progress,” ranging from the 1970s through to the 1990s. As the exhibition’s introductory didactic explains, Horn often editions and sells the photographs, body extensions, and sculptures in order to fund her performances and ephemeral facets of her practice. This is notably referenced by the inclusion of Finger Gloves, laid inactive in a black case near a photograph in which their purpose is made much more apparent.

The most compelling amongst the sculptural pieces, however, might be Madame Bovary, Outcast (1997, AP 10), in which a black feather held in a mirrored vessel is tethered to a rumpled page from the novel of the artwork’s namesake. Feather and paper are adjoined by an angular rod resembling a distorted quill that dangles the crumpled leaflet outside of the case. This provokes a quiet moment of contemplation on production—the mirror reflects the quill, an implement of creation, rather than the written work it produces—although I suspect this is not the only allegory Horn has in mind. Red paint smeared on the glass and paper, taking on the appearance of blood, vaguely alludes to something insidious at play. The paint troubles the counterweighted paper and quill and leads us into a tragic upheaval between the two main characters staged within this playlet. Here, as with many of Horn’s works, multiple levels of meaning are refracted, and the artist’s intentions, though inviting, remain cryptic.

While not overtly presented as such by the museum, the exhibition offers a limited retrospective of Horn’s multimedia works and her ever-evolving oeuvre. The small number of included artworks encourages a more intimate engagement with the artist’s practice as compared with other overwhelmingly sprawling retrospectives. The scale is refreshing and seems an appropriate nod to the artist’s interest in culling from earlier projects and an iterative process that constantly builds upon itself. It is also a reminder that Horn doesn’t need a definitive retrospective yet: this is just one of many empty spaces to be filled and stretched. We’ll get to the next one soon enough.