Horn vs Abramovic: grandmother of performance art, part two

Rebecca Horn. Still from 16mm film Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water,1974–5. Courtesy of the artist

Marina Abramovic’s claim to be the “grandmother of performance art” is discussed in the most read blogpost on this site. At the same time as her seminal work Rhythm O was created in 1975, Rebecca Horn recorded Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water (1974–5), a work that gives an informative window into the emerging performance arts movement and, for me, suggests that Horn is equally worthy of the title. It is an engaging 16mm colour film recording nine inventive and visually alluring performance works shot in a bare apartment room with the Berlin rooftops visible through a rear window. The film is showing in the Tate Tanks until Feb 2nd.

Many of Horn’s films I had previously encountered struck me as over extended but in this one she moves swiftly onto the next scenario before overstaying its welcome and weaves in an undertow of deadpan humour. For example, one performance features a crouching woman letting out occasional birdlike cries. Also in the room is an uncaged white cockatoo who looks rather disconcerted by the mimicry. Another work can best be described as a sensuous mating ritual involving magnetic discs alternately attaching and detaching the legs of the male and female participants. These references to our evolutionary solidarity with the animal world give her work a subtle poetic charge. In another piece, which only slowly reveals itself, tight close-ups of a body hidden in luxuriant foliage create a dizzying sensation of union with the planet.

Rebecca Horn. Still from 16mm film Berlin Exercises in 9 Parts: Dreaming under Water,1974–5. Courtesy of the artist

Horn’s performance artworks are well known for her wearable sculptures which she described as ‘body extensions’. In 1964 at the start of her career she was confined to a sanatorium for a year after contracting a lung illness from the materials she was using. Seen in this context her work is a quest for the body’s liberation. The strange “Heath Robinson” outfits she designs often employ intricate mechanical mechanisms featuring feathers, magnets, levers and mirrors. Although they may now appear bit hokey, they embody a handmade aesthetic and a pre-digital innocence that allies her to the Dadaists rather than the narcissistic performance artists that followed her.

In a memorable and tense piece a redheaded woman hacks at her own long, thick tresses with blunt pinking shears that reduce them to a irregular thatch. As she tries to cut a fringe the scissors’ sharp points threaten to take out one of her eyes. The female self-immolation of this work relates both to Ono’s quietly unsettling Cutpiece and to Abramovic’s overly sensational Rhythm O. Placing a woman in danger is a standard trope of the male gaze but these works of second wave feminism are ambiguous: are they undermining or exploiting our lurid fascination with this image of female subjection?

I have yet to succumb to the narcissistic cult of Abramovic. Horn has taken a different route. She does not give herself a starring role in front of the camera. In truth Abramovic is a performer co-opting art as her stage while Horn is an artist using performance to stage her ideas.

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