Sydney Morning Herald Column

Rebecca Horn and Medicine & Art

Published December 5, 2009
Patricia Piccinini, Game Boys Advanced, 2002-2003, Silicone, acrylic, human hair, clothing, hand-held video games, edition of 3, 140 cm × 36 cm × 75 cm

It’s appropriate that the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art is staging Japan’s first-ever Rebecca Horn retrospective at the same time the Mori Art Museum is hosting the show, Medicine and Art. Of all those who dwell in the upper echelons of international contemporary art, no-one has been more dedicated than Horn when it comes to exploring the possibilities and limitations of the human body.
Born in Germany in 1944, Horn grew up in a society still dealing with the painful hangover of the Second World War. She was determined to become an artist from an early age, but her career really began with a medical emergency. In 1964, at the age of twenty, she contracted lung poisoning from working with glass fibres without wearing a mask. She spent the following year in a sanatorium. Her parents both died during that time and she experienced a sense of “total isolation”. When she was discharged she was still too weak to work with conventional materials and spent her time drawing or sewing.
This brush with mortality gave Horn an acute sense of the frailty and vulnerability of the body. She began to make works that were the antithesis of the heroic, heavily muscled forms of classical sculpture – a tradition that stretches from the Greeks to Rodin. It may also be significant that the sculptors favoured by the Third Reich, such as Arno Breker, made idealised figures whose physical perfection served to symbolize the power of the state.
Horn’s early sculptures resembled cocoons that contained and nurtured the body. She also began to experiment with prostheses and other forms of bodily extension. In the late sixties she started to work in performance, and became known for a piece called Unicorn (1972) in which she attached a long horn to the top of a model’s head, wrapped a kind of truss around her naked body and sent her walking through a forest for twelve hours. It was the first of many works that referred to mythical animals, although the truly mythical creature was the “very bourgeois” 21-year-old girl the work purported to represent. In 1972, the young, marriageable female seemed as exotic as the woman in the Musée de Clunys’s famous tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, of c.1500.
In another piece called Finger Gloves, of the same year, Horn attached long extensions to every finger so she could stand in the centre of a room and touch the walls on either side. It has been suggested, more than once, that this was the inspiration for Tim Burton’s character, Edward Scissorhands.
Such works brought Horn to the attention of Swiss Kunstmeister, Harald Szeemann, who included her in the 1972 Documenta exhibition in Kassel. She was the youngest artist ever to be chosen for this prestigious show, and has never looked back. Over the past thirty years, Horn has had retrospectives in many museums, including the Guggenheim in New York. Over that period her work has continued to evolve with an implacable logic: from body extensions she moved into kinetic sculptures and installations; from performances she progressed to feature-length films. She has collaborated with composers and theatre directors, written books of poetry and recently turned to a spontaneous style of painting made without implements.

The Tokyo show is divided into two parts: the first devoted to installations and kinetic sculptures, both large and small. The second section consists of a series of spacious rooms in which Horn’s performance works and films are projected onto wall-sized screens. The movie program is a demanding one. Her best-known film, Buster’s Bedroom (1991), goes for 104 minutes. It features actors such as Donald Sutherland and Geraldine Chaplin, and has higher production values than is customary for a so-called ‘artist’s film’. The plot revolves around two women who are patients in a sanatorium where Buster Keaton once received treatment. One is there involuntarily, the other of her own free will. The movie is an anthology of familiar themes relating to confinement and healing.
One could spend an entire day watching Horn’s films, although this would be more appealing if the setting was a conventional theatre rather than the Spartan atmosphere of an art museum. Unless a visitor knows what to expect there is something terminally frustrating about being obliged to sit for hours in a bare room.
To the uninitiated the entire show may have an uncompromising, rather cryptic feeling. Horn’s kinetic sculptures perform intermittently, obliging us to stand and wait for the crucial moment. A vine-like arrangement called Malmaschine (1999) periodically springs to life and sprays ink across a white wall. In Concert for Anarchy (2006) a piano suspended upside down from the ceiling spits out its keyboard in a sudden, discordant fit.
In Light imprisoned in the belly of a whale (2002) the words of a poem by the artist float across the walls of a darkened room, bouncing off a pool of water. The theatrical effect is completed by an ambient soundtrack by the New Zealand composer, Hayden Chisholm.
The overall impact remains ambiguous because Horn’s contraptions are not intended as entertainments. Instead, they tease us with odd, jerky movements; implicit threats of violence, or sensations such as the brushing of wings that invite touching rather than viewing from a distance. Although she is obsessed with the body Horn is a dauntingly cerebral artist. Each work is a small essay, incorporating key references to art and literature, history and philosophy. This is especially apparent in the public artworks she has constructed in places such as Münster and Weimar, full of dark reflections on Germany’s recent past.
Kinetic sculptures are often characterised by their playfulness, but Horn’s pieces are like Buddhist koans that pose irresolvable questions to the unenlightened. There is an undeniable wit in these works but it has a sharp, cold edge.
Medicine and Art at the Mori Art Museum is a more reliable crowd-pleaser – not a collection of great artworks, but a cabinet of curiosities blending paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations with antiquarian books and bizarre relics of medical history. In one glass case, for instance, there rests Charles Darwin’s skull-headed walking stick, George Washington’s false teeth and Florence Nightingale’s moccasins.
The bulk of this exhibition – roughly 150 items – is drawn from the Wellcome Collection of London. The Collection and a highly active philanthropic trust were founded by the pharmaceutical tycoon, Sir Henry Welcome (1853-1936), who stated his interests as “the development of art and the science of healing throughout the ages.”
This assortment of historical artifacts necessarily includes many paintings, although they are rarely by the greatest masters. The most fascinating objects are not artworks at all, but devices such as an exercise machine of 1901-05, an X-ray apparatus of 1910, and a “custom-built” iron lung (1941-50), each of them resembling elaborate instruments of torture. In other cases there are chastity belts, artificial limbs, glass eyes and boxes of surgical tools.
The exhibition begins, appropriately enough, with the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, that timeless hero of both science and art. It ends with a piece of “victimless leather” being grown in a glass beaker by the Tissue Culture and Art Project, based at the University of Western Australia. There are also pieces by Australian artists, Patricia Piccinini and Stellarc. The latter was present at the opening, showing off the artificial ear he has had surgically implanted under the skin of his left arm.

Medicine and Art is divided into three sub-sections: ‘Discovering the Inner World of the Body’, ‘Fighting Against Death and Disease’, and ‘Toward Eternal Life and Love’. Among the most powerful exhibits are Walter Schels’s Life before death photo-portraits, which capture his subjects in a state of terminal illness, and then immediately after they have died. The word “confronting” is barely adequate.
In L’hospice (The Nursing Home), Gilles Barbier took a more humorous look at the ravages of time by showing comic book superheroes in a state of advanced old age. By contrast there was nothing but dullness to be found in a photorealist painting attributed to Damien Hirst, which depicted an operating theatre where the artist’s wife was having a Caesarian section. Why is it that even a show like this has to pay a ritual obeisance to the big brand names of contemporary art? Hirst himself would never have touched this painting, produced by an anonymous assistant according to his instructions.
While art and science may both rely on experimentation, it seems that the latter discards its follies while the former tends to compound them. Experimental science may lead to advances in knowledge, but in the realm of art every new innovation only speeds the progress of universal credulity.
Rebecca Horn, october 31, 2009 – February 14, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
Medicine and Art,  November 28, 2009 – February 28, 2010, Mori art Museum, Tokyo
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 5, 2009