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How the time flies

Sven Knudsen on Rebecca Horn’s lo-tech innovations

Sven Knudsen is a Canberra-based arts writer and curator.

Complex digital technology pervades every aspect of our daily lives and the visual arts are no exception, especially with the readily available and cheap stockpile of high-tech, off-the-shelf gizmos and gadgets currently saturating the market. However, Rebecca Horn’s kinetic creations are born out of the mechanisms, gearing and inner-workings of obsolete typewriters, surgical instruments and analogue clocks. Her exhibition Time Goes By at the ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery brings to Australia for the first time a number of the photographs, drawings, films and most interestingly the kinetic sculptures of this internationally acclaimed artist.
Rebecca Horn, Large Feather Wheel, 1997 Rebecca Horn, Large Feather Wheel, 1997
photo Attilio Maranzano, courtesy ANU Drill Hall Gallery
As a student in the 1960s at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, Horn produced a series of filmed performances incorporating body sculptures and extensions, masks and feathered objects/costumes. Over the next decade these fanciful creations developed into the wearable kinetic sculptures documented in films such as The Feathered Prison Fan in Der Eintänzer (1978) or The Peacock Machine in La Ferdinanda (1981). However, as Horn’s practice evolved, she completely replaced the human body with mechanical constructions and kinetic sculptures. The dynamic and fluid movement of the performers’ bodies in her earlier films is replaced by the very slight rhythmic movements and extremely precise mechanised functions of her sculptures. In a final step, this exhibition displays these as individual artworks.

Painting Machine, 1999, is Horn’s largest kinetic sculpture in this exhibition and resembles a primitive version of the complex and technologically advanced robotic machines used in the automotive industry. As though resurrected from one of Henry Ford’s automated production lines, Horn’s robotic arm sprays a fine jet of paint across an entire gallery wall. As the name suggests, the human painter is displaced by the mechanical apparatus, in the same way factory workers were made redundant by robots. In effect, Horn’s robo-painter replaces the need for an artist’s involvement in the creative act and raises questions as to whether it is the actual process of painting or the idea and construction of the mechanical apparatus that constitutes the artwork.

Moving parts powered by intricately geared electric motors and pumps animate this and many other sculptures in Horn’s exhibition. On entering the gallery, the viewer faces the splayed wing-feathers of a bird, mounted on a brass apparatus. As implied by the title, Large Feather Wheel (1997), the feathers momentarily form a giant disc when fully open, before slowly folding away as the machine completes its cycle. On the opposite wall is another small machine, constructed from 7 oyster shells attached to the working innards of a piano. In Oysterpiano (1992), the rocker action of the revolving shaft causes the oyster shells to rise and fall in a wave-like motion. Horn has an obvious interest in natural cycles, such as the influence of the moon or sun on the seasons, weather and tides. In Blue Wave (2002), she sets in motion 2 circular mirrors, over-painted with blue waves, that orbit one another. Occasionally, one of the mirrors catches an overhead floodlight and redirects its beam, casting a crescent shadow across the floor like a solar eclipse.

At the heart of each kinetic sculpture beats the faint repetitive sounds of animated parts. Reverberating from across the gallery space the “pitter-patter” of tiny feet, leads the perceptive listener to a large canvas splattered with dark blue paint, Arteaters (1998). The sound resonates from 2 miniature insect-like machines attached at either end of the canvas that beat to a constant rhythm just like their living counterpart, the cricket. Their long spindly legs, made from brass tubing delicately soldered and activated by small electric motors and gears sourced from an old clock or typewriter, softly tap on a canvas surface taut as a drum. Effectively, Horn has overcome the limitations once advanced mechanisms to perform new artistic functions that are now taken for granted by new media artists using digital technology. Horn’s art is neither nostalgic nor romantic, she uses the outmoded components of antique instruments, of scientific innovation past, to construct beautifully simple creations.

Rebecca Horn, Time Goes By, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra. March 9 - April 23

Sven Knudsen is a Canberra-based arts writer and curator.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 44

© Sven Knudsen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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