Rebecca Horn is born in Michelstadt, Germany, in 1944. During her studies at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg (1964 — 70) she focuses on representations of the body that prove to be of great importance for her later work. Drawings emerge that almost exclusively deal with female anatomy. Geometric incisions and inscriptions acquire in these works the character of injuring formations. The grotesquely enlarged, elongated or constricted body turns into a cipher for a constructed, contingent, non-natural and at the same time unstable corporeality.
In 1968 Horn turns to Action as her artistic means of expression. Like the experiments of Allan Kaprow, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham that are conducted at the same time, she uses the body as medium of a changing perception of reality and ritualization, of poetic narrative and threatening experience. With the Documenta 5 of 1972 she becomes known to a larger public. Unlike the usual proceedings of Action Art, Horn’s work is performed without an audience. She presents her Performances in photographs and films after their actual staging.
For her highly inventive Actions Horn uses the defamiliarizing and artificial effects created through the interaction of body and automaton. Through theatre-like masquerades, through apparatuses and racks, Horn transforms herself or her actors into fantasy creatures that are quite often animal-like. Their appearance and movements are choreographed in a strictness that is generally characteristic of Horn’s work. She calls upon the motif of the grotesque elaborated in the literature of romanticism to realize her psychically and physically complex body creations. Yet only in photography and film does the fixed work of art emerge. The theatrical Performance may take place on stage-like constellations in interior spaces or in the landscape. In Mit beiden Händen die Wände berühren (1974/75) Horn presents a new experience of space gained through the medium of extending or expanding the body. With elongated finger prostheses she succeeds in her impressive rendering of an expansive, almost all-inclusive experience of space. Other kinds of bodily perceptions, for example the opening and closing of the body through mechanical feather fans, as in Hahnengefieder (1971), or the film Der Eintänzer (1978) are presented in ritual-like associations of animals and humans. Masks and ribbons that enclose parts of the body or turn them into instruments for specific actions can also become means of corporeal experience. In Überströmer (1970) tubes hanging from the body are used to make the experience of blood circulation perceivable from outside through the creation of an »Aderngewand« (Horn, 1970), a robe for arteries and veins.
With Die chinesische Verlobte (1976), an Installation that closes up once the viewer enters it, Horn starts to increasingly work with kinetic objects that determine filmic sequences without live actors and are accompanied by figures, music, and spoken texts.
In the 1980s these sculptures again develop a life of their own and turn into independent museum Installations. Her latest works show seemingly independent apparatuses enact mechanical processes in constant repetition, as, for example, the Painting Machine (1988) or the feather fan in Der Zwilling des Raben (1997). The materials and objects are again derived from motifs of romanticism and show instruments of painting, music instruments, exotic feathers, sheet music, or books, in defamiliarized mechanical processes. Associations to history and mythic fiction emerge. Yet the automatons, driven by small electrical motors, have their own narrative life. They perform actions situated within the realm of the crafts, they hammer and drill, stab and caress affectionately. Aggressive machines include pistols and guns in their activities, as, for example, Raum der gegenseitigen Zerstörung (1992) or High Noon (1991). The emotionalized, controlled movements that may well appear absurd and oppressive express themselves in the process of viewing. In an interview the artist comments on these effects: »My machines are no washing-machines. They own almost human qualities, and they have to change. They are nervous, and sometimes they have to stop. (…) This tragic or melancholy aspect of the machines is very important to me« (Horn, in Ausst.-Kat. New York 1993).
Especially in the early 1990s political themes play a major role in Horn’s works. She creates threatening scenarios from biblical patterns, an example would be Chor der Heuschrecken 1 und 2 (1991), a work that implicitly comments on the war in Iraq. The representation of political memory of the Holocaust becomes a theme of her spatial composition Konzert für Buchenwald, Part I and II (1999) and the Installation Spiegel der Nacht (1998).
Since 1989 Rebecca Horn has been teaching at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. In 1993, her widely exhibited Installation and Performance Art was presented in a large retrospective at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Horn lives in Berlin and Paris.
Rebecca Horn, Bodylandscapes. Zeichnungen, Skulpturen, Installationen 1964 — 2004: Ausst.-Kat. Düsseldorf u.a., hg v. Armin Zweite, u.a. Berlin, Ostfildern Ruit 2004
Rebecca Horn. Konzert für Buchenwald: Ausst.-Kat. mit Texten von Doris van Drathen, Boris Groys, u.a. Zürich, Berlin, New York 1999
Rebecca Horn. The Glance of Infinity: Ausst.-Kat., Kestner Gesellschaft Hannover, Zürich 1997
Laue, Monika: Wahre Weibeskünste? Zur Problematik einer femininen Ästhetik in der zeitgenössischen Kunst. Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel und Rebecca Horn, München 1996
Rebecca Horn: Ausst.-Kat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, hg. v. Germano Celant. New York, Ostfildern Ruit 1993