The soft black feathers flutter like a bird in flight in Rebecca Horn’s Die Kleine Witze, Schwarzer Federflügel (The Little Widow, Black Feathers). Animated by a motor, with each feather attached to the mechanism in a span that mimics a pair of wings, Horn’s kinetic sculpture verges on being an automaton for its evocation of a living being. With its title “the little widow,” the blue-black feathers evoke mourning and the fluttering palpitations of a grieving heart.
Feathers first began appearing in Horn’s work as components in elaborate props and costumes, sculptures in their own right, used in films that explored their physical and tactile effects upon the body in motion. As curator Lynne Cooke describes, “In the late sixties, Horn began a series of objects which extended the body physically and, it could be argued, also psychically into space. Such extensions to fingers, arms and torso not only permitted the wearer during a ritualistic performance to expand his or her grasp of the surrounding milieu but they provided the opportunity for the making of short films documenting these sensual, seductive activities” (L. Cooke, “Rebecca Horn. New York, Guggenheim Museum,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1086, Sept. 1993, p. 658). For example, in 1972 she attached feathers to a ring-like armature worn on all five fingers of a hand, transforming the digits into a gentle tool for caresses the arm of a lover, exploring touch and sensation in the film Feather Fingers. For another set of gloves, the artists attached long strips of leather to each finger, writing: “the finger gloves are light. I can move them without any effort. Feel, touch, grasp anything, but keeping a certain distance from the objects. The lever-action of the lengthened fingers intensifies the various sense-data of the hand; ...I feel me touching, I see me grasping, I control the distance between me and the objects” (R. Horn, “Finger Gloves,” Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/horn-finger-gloves-t07845 [Accessed April 8, 2014]). Cockfeather Mask from a year later features a mask made of glossy black rooster feathers bound to the artist’s face with leather straps. Radiating them like a cock’s-comb around the artist’s head, Horn used the plumes to engage her companion in the corresponding film. Most ambitiously, for The Feathered Prison Fan made for her 1978 film Die Eintänzer she arranged enormous white feathers in a manner that both embraces and entraps the artist’s body in a walking, movable prison. Cooke elaborates, calling The Feathered Prison Fan “wondrous…a delicate shield made from long sumptuous fronds taken from a peacock, and the epitome of the strutting lover, these constructions are revealed (once divested of the agents they had temporarily sheltered) as kinetic beings whose ceaseless mechanistic activity betokens a seduction with neither end nor climax—the very hallmark of frustration” (L. Cooke, ibid.).
In the early 1980s, Horn began making kinetic sculptures that moved by the force of a motor, eliminating the need for the body to animate the organic materials and shapes. She called her kinetic sculpture “films compressed into its essence” for their ability to articulate movement through time (J. Grande, John K. “Rebecca Horn/ Sean Kelly Gallery,” Sculpture Magazine, January/February 2009, n.p.). “For me, all of these machines have a soul because they act, shake, tremble, faint, almost fall apart, and then come back to life again. They are not perfect machines. …I’m interested in the soul of a thing, not the machine itself. …It’s the story between the machine and its audience that interests me” (R. Horn, Rebecca Horn, New York, 1993, p. 18).
Seeking out intimacy with her audience, Horn is erotic and romantic in her pursuit of sensual experiences that come in the form of touches both gentle and aggressive, as well as sensations that overwhelm and engulf. The German poet Joachim Sartorius wrote of the artist on the occasion of her 2014 exhibition in Bonn, “On the one hand, the fall into the bottomless chasm; on the other—in the updraft of swirling light—the ascension. Contrasts like these flow through Rebecca Horn’s entire oeuvre in a single forward motion: disruption and harmony, vulnerability and beauty, threat and resurrection. Her work invariably deals with borderline experiences. …While parallels can undoubtedly be drawn to Surrealism and kindred spirits such as Jannis Kounellis, as well as to her acknowledged idols Buster Keaton and Raymond Roussel, Rebecca Horn has ultimately found her own unmistakeable language—anarchic yet extremely precise—with which to translate our fears into disconcerting images, to measure our souls and unsettle our minds” (J. Sartorius, “The Universe of Rebecca Horn,” Rebecca Horn: Black Moon Mirror, Bonn, 2014, p. 20).