Saturday, August 18, 2007

Rebecca Horn at the Rodin Gallery, Seoul

The first work a visitor encounters in this important retrospective--a term I hesitate to use given that Horn continues to be a prolific producer of art--is Large Feather Wheel, from 1997. Assuming (rightly, I think) that a large proportion of Korean viewers will be unfamiliar with the history of Berlin's installation-art innovator, the curators have provided a cover by which we may gauge the contents of their assemblage of a really quite surprising number of Horn's works. The wheel, for its part, consists of splayed feathers which are bolted to a motor and they slowly and intermittently arc around a central axis. The work suggests flight through the potential for the feathers to move, while simultaneously (and subsequently) rendering such flight impossible given that the wings themselves rely on a motor that is bolted to the wall just as it is bolted to them.

Potentiality is a constant in Horn's practice; she treats the tense negotiation between biological imperative and physiological limitation without a trace of the maudlin. Her repeated use of wing and feather motifs suggests this, as does her revisitation of small, discrete motors. The motors are, for the most part, unsettlingly slow--so slow as to be inexorable--and often quantized into short periods of operation followed by long periods of inactivity. This is the case with her Butterfly Machine, a small motor which intermittently flaps a pair of 4-inch butterfly wings, although perhaps even more so in Feather Wings, a similar construction but with feathers that unfurl against each other while rotating slowly around the motor that powers them. The sloth of these arcane, brass, steampunk constructions is the means by which they demand to be considered.

We see also in this exhibition her use of mirrors and of water as a reflecting surface, in work such as Cinema Verite. While a subtle agitator in a flat, low, black pool of water generates a moving reflection on the wall behind it, some viewers may miss the occasional connection of a pole hovering just above the water. This interruption causes larger ripples to issue from the agitator, for a very short time--ripples which produce reflections resembling spread wings--and anyone present then realizes the perpetual possibility that the protrusion will again interfere with its liquid counterpart.

The literal restraint with which Horn uses mechanical elements is more compelling than their full kinetic ability, and she designs her art with deliberate stalls, hangups, and lethargy built into the systems of the works. It is this way in which she has made her works reference humanity--Night Wood, for instance, in which a hammer repeatedly and seemingly eternally (though intermittently) knocks face powder through a sieve, where it falls onto an open book. Employing such themes and imagery, we realize that Horn's approach to technology is a maternal one; she is willing to wait for her machines to produce a given result, and we must be too.

There are other works of note in this exhibition: her generative Painting Machine Prussian Blue and Art Eaters, for instance, which turn acts of artistic creation into drawn-out, operatic, mechanical-but-nevertheless-human ballets; her series of drawings Pink Ghosts and Ghosts of Fire, which reference the body and its failings more obscurely than the kinetic works; and the array of video and film works collected for this exhibition--with a ridiculous combined duration of approximately 6 hours--which all belong to a sort of late-Cold War Berlin aesthetic, shot largely during overcast days in high-ceilinged white apartments. They manage to be both emblematic and fresh, not unlike the rest of this exhibition.


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