Thinking with... Rebecca Horn

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

'Extensions celebrate possibilities while revealing the constraints we have engineered for ourselves' - Lisa Le Feuvre, 2019

Before we get started, I thought it would be best to let you know that this is a longer blog than usual. So make sure you get yourself a cuppa and make yourself comfortable. If you have any questions after reading about Rebecca Horn's work, feel free to comment below and we can get some interesting conversations going.


Let's get started...

Horn's 'finger gloves', 1972. Photo Credit: Tate.

I remember seeing Rebecca Horn's wearable artworks on a school trip to the Tate Modern as a fourteen year old. We had been at the Tate for a while, and I was bored of having to look at blank canvases, pretending I understood why these white squares could be considered art. As you walked into one of the bare white gallery spaces of Tate's year round collection, one of the first artworks you were presented with was Horn's 'finger gloves' (1972, pictured above). These long black prosthetic gloves, extended the original wearers fingers by a meter. To me, they just looked like long sticks. I questioned, "isn't that what Edward Scissorhands wears?". Needless to say my art teacher wasn't very impressed with me. I had no idea why these massive 'finger gloves' were hanging on the wall of an art gallery - is that art? Surely Horn's wearable artworks should be presented on a live body? I decided it would have been more interesting to see someone wear the gloves. Still bored, I quickly moved on from Horn's work and went round the corner to another bare white gallery with even more blank canvases for me to try to understand.


Ten years later, I am now making my own wearable artwork for my MA at Roehampton University. Throughout Call Us Angels, I have been making angel wings out of trash that I have been able to wear out in the public during 'A Call to Action'. Fourteen year old me would never have thought I'd be making art that connects so heavily to Horn's "weird" wearable artworks, but here we are.


Throughout this blog I'm going to be exploring Horn's wearable artworks, the impact these artworks had on the wearer's body and the connections Horn's work has with my own making and wearing of trash angel wings in Call Us Angels.

Rebecca Horn is a prolific female visual artist. Although Horn still works as an artist, and has made a variety of different mechanical artworks, the work we shall be exploring in this blog are called wearable artworks as, like the 'finger gloves', these pieces were worn by someone in a moment of action or performance. A lot of these artworks are now hanging up in galleries like the Tate, having not been worn by anyone since the 70s.


Horn grew up in post-war Germany, a nation recovering from a defeat in World War Two. During this time, Germany suffered a significant loss of cultural identity and increased financial insecurity. The Art Story, an interactive website documenting the work of visual artists throughout history, suggests that a lot of Horn's mechanical artworks exploring violence were inspired by her childhood in Germany (2020). This seems very speculative with no solid connection between Horn's time in Germany and the many contemporary artworks she has made, like 'High Moon' (1991), exploring said themes. However, what has been confirmed by Horn is that a lot of her early wearable artworks emerged from her time of being bed bound in a sanatorium whilst suffering from lung poisoning.

Horn's 'Feather Prison Fan' (1979). Photo Credit: Rebecca Horn.

'Looking back at my first pieces you always see a kind of cocoon, which I used to protect myself. Like the fans where I can lock myself in, enclose myself, then open and integrate another person in an intimate ritual. This intimacy of feeling and communication was a central part of the performances' - Rebecca Horn, 1993

In a retrospective interview with late art curator and critic Germano Celant, Horn states that if you 'look back at my first pieces you can always see a kind of cocoon which I used to protect myself' (1993). Pieces that spring to mind from this quotation are Horn's wearable wing shape pieces like 'Mechanical Body Fan' (1973-74) and 'Feathered Prison Fan' (1979, picture above). Both of these artworks allowed the wearer to close their bodies off by using their arms to cover themselves in the materials making up the fans. These works also gave the wearer the power to open these wings and show their body to the public. Horn's use of the word cocoon in her reflection is interesting as, although these objects extend the body she does not focus on that, instead emphasising the importance that these objects could protect and enclose the vulnerable body. Perhaps this sense of needing to cocoon the body came from her experiences of physical fragility and vulnerability during her illness?


There's something quite mysterious about Horn's fan artworks that allow bodies, often female, to be hidden. As an audience member looking, you want to know what's inside and what the wings are hiding. What makes these wearable objects interesting to the audience is the invisible - in this case the female body. This female body has full control over whether they are visible to an audience or not, allowing the wearer to cocoon or protect themselves when they feel vulnerable. This is in complete contrast to my experience of wearing my trash wings during 'A Call to Action'. Although similar in shape, my trash wings didn't have this aim and were made very differently. The way the wings were strapped to my shoulders, and not my arms, meant I could not enclose them around my body as with Horn's fans. My wings were not used to cocoon myself. I did not want to hide my body in them. Instead, I wanted to use the wings to emphasise my presence to the public around me. Whilst wearing my trash wings, spanning 2 meters wide and 2 meters tall, people walking around me had to get out of the way. Car horns beeped at me. People were noticing me, my wings and my female body. The wings forced my female body into visibility, and when comparing to Horn's fans, I worried this meant I had lost power over my wings as I could not use them to hide myself away if I needed to. However, I don't think I lost power to my wings. I was the person who decided to wear the wings. I was the person who decided I needed to be seen by the public. I was the person who decided to use my wings and my female body to show the public the impact the ecological crisis would have on our local area, and the impact this crisis would have on women around the world.

Horn's 'Pencil Mask' (1972). Photo Credit: Rebecca Horn.

It is interesting that Horn called one of her wings, that gave wearers the power to hide their bodies, 'Feather Prison Fan'. There's a difficult juxtaposition between the power of the wearer being able to make themselves invisible and cocoon their bodies in the feathers, with the word prison used in this work's title. Prison immediately brings about connotations of entrapment and isolation, making me question the true power of the wearer in this artwork. Are they really cocooning themselves to protect their bodies, or are they willingly enclosing themselves into their own prison? These kinds of juxtapositions are present in many of Horn's wearable pieces, and is one of the reasons why they are viewed so highly - her pieces have a complicated depth to them.


Curator Lisa Le Feuvre emphasises the juxtaposition in Horn's work by illustrating the complicated impact the extensions Horn's wearable pieces make to the wearer's bodies. Le Feuvre states that 'extensions celebrate possibilities while revealing constraints we have engineered for ourselves' (2019). Taking Horn's 1972 'Pencil Mask' (pictured above) as an example, we see that Horn has created a mask for herself that uses pencils to extend and constrain her face’s usual communicative function. This mask was implemented by Horn's face, drawing with a multitude of pencils, giving her body a power to do something most bodies cannot. However, Horn created this mask using black fabric that looks like rope to bondage in her face. Furthermore, the only way Horn can use the pencils is if she forces her face up to a wall and moves her head up and down or side to side in order for the pencils to make marks on the wall. Although the mask gives Horn the power to draw with her face, and although Horn has had the power in creating said mask, the mask simultaneously constrains her face and manipulates her body to move in a certain way. The reason for this juxtaposition of power VS manipulation in the 'pencil mask' is still uncertain to me. Is it to highlight the impact of mechanical objects on the human body? Is it to explore the simultaneous power and constraints of being a female artist? I think this is up to the subjective judgement of the viewer. However, what has been certain, and useful for me, is that this 'pencil mask' has been extremely helpful in my own thinking around wearing my trash angel wings.


Like Horn's 'pencil mask', I had the power and say in making my trash wings. The wings also extended my body in a way that, as explored previously, made both my female body, the wings and the fight for climate and ecological justice visible to those passing by. However, the wings also manipulated my body. In a similar way to the 'pencil mask' changing how Horn moved her face, in order to keep my trash wings on my body I had to change how I walked. My posture became hunched. My walk became slower in order to ensure I didn't break the wings. These wings were also heavy and painful to wear and impacted my ability to join in with the litter picking occurring during 'A Call to Action'. If I had power over how I made these wings, as Horn did with her 'pencil mask', why did I not ensure these wings would be easy to carry and not painful to wear during 'A Call to Action'?


Architect Charles Holland make the obvious point that Horn's wearable artworks make it difficult to move naturally. He states, 'supposedly straightforward functions, such as drawing or touching, become difficult and compromised, but are also give a new meaning' (Holland, 2005). There is a reason that Horn's works manipulate the wearers body, as well as extend it. This particular quotation from Holland made me question what 'new meaning' the experience of wearing my trash wings gave me. The wearing of the wings made picking up trash and walking the 4 hour journey from Newlands Corner to Slyfield Recycling Plant particularly challenging. But I think that was the point. I made the wings in a very raw and DIY manner in order to fully showcase the trash I had collected in a year. I made these wing uncomfortable because I wanted to re-use items I had collected and so could not buy comfortable shoulder straps. I also made these wings uncomfortable because I needed to physically experience the pain of wearing this trash on my body in order to understand the sheer scale of my own waste consumption. Litter picking whilst wearing waste on my back was also eye opening; its hard to litter pick and clean up your local environment, when deep down I knew that I too have contributed to the ecological crisis through my wasteful consumerist habits.

Rebecca Horn's 'Unicorn', 1970-72. Photo Credit: Rebecca Horn.

Although a lot of Horn's wearable art pieces were made for her to wear, some of the pieces were worn by friends of Horn. What does it mean to make a simultaneously extending and constraining artwork for someone else to wear? Horn's 'Unicorn' (1970-72, pictured above) was made for a classmate at art school because 'she had a very strange, stiff way of walking' (Mcvey qtd. Horn, 2014). Although I'm sure this classmate gave consent to wear this artwork for Horn, I question the ethics in allowing another body, other than Horn's to experience the juxtaposition between having the power in experiencing the extension of their body, but also having the wearable artwork impact the way the wearer moves or reacts. This dilemma is something that has been on my mind whilst creating instructions for fellow angels to make trash wings like mine. What does it mean to encourage other women to make and wear their own trash wings? Will they have a similar eye-opening experience, realising the pain and extent of their own consumerist habits like I did? Or will the wings just negatively impact the wearer's body, causing unnecessary pain and stress? The more I realise Call Us Angels has become a socially engaged piece of art, the more responsibility I realise I have to other angels making and wearing trash wings. No amount of exploring Horn's wearable artworks will answer these ethical questions. Instead, this is something I will have to work out with time as more angels get making their own wings.

Before wrapping up this discussion about Horn's wearable art pieces, and thinking through how they have helped me develop my own understanding of my trash angel wings, I first want to ponder on this quotation by art historian Armin Zweite. Zweite states 'the plenitude of familiar objects we encounter in her [Horn's] work, which not only take on a specific life of their own, but are also modified and placed in unaccustomed contexts' (2005). I was drawn to Zweite's understanding of Horn's wearable artworks because he notices that Horn's pieces often use ordinary and recognisable objects. By Horn placing these recognisable objects, like feathers, onto the body of a ballerina (as in 'Feather Prison Fan' 1979), these recognisable object are allowed to perform as something they are not - beautiful, full wings. But, as Zweite makes clear in his quotation, these objects still have their own life. They are still little feathers.


The question when does trash become art has continued to haunt me during the making and wearing of my trash angel wings. Like Horn, I have taken everyday objects, like crisp packets, and placed then onto a female body. We have already seen how these trash wings have changed my own body, but how does the trash change once it is made into wearable wings and once these wings are placed onto my body? Does trash just become a piece of wearable art, losing all sense of its original past? Does that one packet of crisps become a small speck in the trash wings exploring the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis? There is no simple answer to either of these questions. What is for sure, is that the trash used in making these wings is still trash. But maybe, using it to make wings, it can be art for the day. But maybe, using it to make wings, this trash can help inform others of the impact the ecological crisis will have on our society.


I hope so.

To check out my experiences of wearing trash angel wings during 'A Call to Action', click here.


If you enjoyed this blog, I would also suggest you read this blog that looks at the work of Belgiam artist Sarah Vanhee.

Work Referenced:


The Art Story. 'Biography of Rebecca Horn'. Rebecca Horn, 2020, https://www.theartstory.org/artist/horn-rebecca/, (Accessed: 2020).


Celant, Germano. 'Interview with Rebecca Horn'. Rebecca Horn Exhibition catalogue, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1993.


Holland, Charles. 'Reviews the German artist Rebecca Horn's show Bodylandscapes'. Rebecca Horn: Bodylandscapes, London: Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2005.


Le Feuvre, Lisa. 'Extending Bodies'. Tate ETC, 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-36-spring-2016/extending-bodies, (Accessed: 2020).


McVey, Kurt. 'The Backbone of Rebecca Horn'. Interview Magazine, 2014, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/rebecca-horn-vertebrae-oracle, (Accessed: 2020).


Zweite, Armin. 'Rebecca Horn's Bodylandscapes: Ten Observations about the race of feelings and drawing in post-mechanical times'. Rebecca Horn: Bodylandscapes, London: Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2005.

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