Twilight, Stardom, and Sex

John Haber
in New York City

Rebecca Horn, Marina Abramovic, and Roni Horn

Museums long held few women artists, but no shortage of images of women. Feminist criticism has made that fact impossible to overlook.

For at least twenty years, artists have probed what that peculiar deficit and surfeit mean. Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and others have put women behind the camera and toyed with the infamous male gaze. Even earlier, however, before appropriation became the word in photography, women began staring back. Rebecca Horn's Twilight Transit (Matthew Marks, 2005

More than thirty years ago, Rebecca Horn and Marina Abramovic staged performances with their own bodies as the subject. The European artists, both born around the end of World War II, have made it hard to see their sexuality apart from vulnerability—including the potential for violence or death. About ten years younger, Roni Horn also lives on borderlines. A woman, she has an ambiguous first name. An American, she has a particular fascination with Iceland's stark scenery and perhaps a greater presence in Europe. She moves easily between photographs, sometimes of herself, and fragile sculptural media.

In Chelsea at the end of 2005, all three return to images of women, again with implicit themes of self-presentation, sexuality, aging, and mortality. Rebecca Horn pairs a ghostly new installation with early videos of herself that seem always to know what to hide, while Roni Horn disappears entirely, although one would hardly know it from her photographs of an actual film star. Abramovic recreates old performances in her own person and subjects others to some new ones. If her alleged Balkan erotic rituals lose something in translation, past reviews of Abramovic's Room with an Ocean View and contributions to a survey of early performance videos have considered her work's impact at its finest, while a later review turns to her MoMA retrospective.

One could call it images of three women, one could just as well speak of four women, counting the film actress, or even dozens in all their poses. Then, too, one could speak of fewer women or none at all. Perhaps they leave the proverbial male gaze nothing at which to stare but his own imagination, and they manage to manipulate that carefully as well.

Twilight and transit

When I think of German art, I imagine work never content to let me figure it out. Whether ironic, as with Neo Rauch, painstakingly literal, as with photography since Bernd and Hilla Becher, or a matter of life and death, as with so much Neo-Expressionism, we have ways of making you look! Gerhard Richter almost escapes, but only by piling on all three modes at once.

Rebecca Horn does lean toward desperate measures. At her best, however, the work unfolds in small, tentative steps that share her vulnerability and make the viewer feel exposed as well. The combination goes back to a personal turning point more than thirty-five years ago, when a lung condition forced her to give up sculpture for performance and soft materials. Now a large installation, some gestural abstraction, and film of half a dozen performances from the early 1970s fill out the range of her recourses ever since. Each work in its own way agonizes over corporeal existence, but with a touch that turns one's eye toward the spaces between the more heavy-handed symbols.

The abstractions did not leave a huge impression on me. Still, the thin, colored traces on large, white fields helped me see something brighter and more open in the rest of the exhibition. The grim reaper gets plenty of stage time in the main gallery, but Twilight Transit becomes more elusive the closer one approaches. Its tall elements look a bit like equipment for a film or sound stage, give or take the skulls at the center of each one. The pairs of partially reflective glass to either side of the skulls all but scream at one to reflect on death, and the ambient sound, strong lighting, scale, and repetition leave one suitably spooked. Nonetheless, one draws closer until one grows downright comfortable in the large room—and until one can no longer find even ghosts.

One peers into those round mirrors, set at an angle, for images of the skulls. One discovers instead windows onto the gallery's open spaces and reflections of oneself. Death as absence or as a constant presence within one's own body may not sound original, but it turns on the work's indirection. It breaks down the distinction between the steel frame and one's own organic form as well. It suggests the art as a kind of prosthetic limb, keeping death and the work's fixed meaning tentatively away. One can see it even as an improvement on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, where women turn against the male gaze, but the threatening display retains an association with "bad girls" and whores.

On film, Horn has her own prostheses. In one, a kind of dark-metal walker takes tentative steps, while the sinister, spidery legs reach toward one. In another, canvas serves her alternately as wings, as a cocoon, and as a transient but perfect circle with her body as its axis. In a third, feathers held to each finger by slim metal rings extend her touch. The hand reaches tentatively toward her other hand and then caresses her arm, in a gesture combining fear, love, and discovery. Her right hand literally does not know what her left hand is doing.

I found it comforting, truly sexy, and also disorienting. The exhibition coincides with a week of performance art in Chelsea and around town, but notice one last act of indirection or deferral. The film hides as much as it recreates, including Horn. When she walks a dark, tree-lined allée with a horn atop her head, she calls it Einhorn, but is the "one horn" with so much comedy and magic the prosthesis or herself? In performance, one would see her entire body, whereas the film record highlights what one cannot see. Paradoxically, it brings her presence that much more alive.

Sex in the Balkans

That week of performance art included another woman's performance from decades ago, only Marina Abramovic recreated her performance in person. In fact, at the Guggenheim she pushed a woman's self-exposure still further, by appropriating the past performances of five others as well. Surely no one has probed for so many years a woman's sexuality and austerity, her visibility and silence. Surely, too, then, it was only a matter of time before Abramovic joined Monty Python. How could perhaps the greatest living performance artist not work with the greatest performance troupe? Unfortunately for her new videos, however, Abramovic seems not to have noticed that the troupe broke up some years ago.

Balkan Erotic Epic would never make it with the tourists flocking to Spamalot either, but they may wish they could rent its first season. In its large central projection, women in peasant blouses run every which way, in a kind of manic folk dance. Every few seconds a woman stops, jerks her scarf-covered head to the sky, and raises her patterned skirt to the driving rain. Their fits and starts could make one wish to wipe clean the DVD or, perhaps, the artist's dirty mind. (Remember, never rub in a circle.) Their faces betray an earnest anxiety, but so would yours under the circumstances.

On an adjacent wall, men lie face down on the grass and wiggle their bottoms. I felt only disappointment to learn that they are copulating with the earth. I had taken it as Balkan traditional aerobics, and indeed it keeps their buttock muscles admirably taut. The third wall cannot aspire to these heights, but in a side room a more corpulent, bare-breasted woman keeps bashing a skull against her bellybutton. Evidently this exercise does not have nearly the same cardiovascular benefits. From the long, straight hair covering her face completely, she also seems to have put her wig on backward and mistaken the darkness for an encounter with death.

In the front room, Abramovic herself briefly summarizes half a dozen additional ways to focus one's sexual energies. Deliberately, one must assume, she accentuates the stereotype of an Eastern European accent by supplying the definite article at precisely the wrong times. This has awkward consequences for describing such rituals as stuffing a fish up one's vagina, and, trust me, you do not want to know what happens to it the next morning. Did I mention one involving a dead parrot nailed to a stoop? Oh, sorry, never mind.

Clearly an artist this self-aware could not have overlooked the potential for laughter. Her eyeglasses alone betray a wry commentary on eroticism in her own past performances, as well as the comic pose of an anthropologist obsessed with exotic customs. Indeed, it goes against the grain of criticism to say so, but Abramovic has always had a marvelous grounding in physical comedy, going back decades, to when her and her partner, Olay, slammed repeatedly against one another. Something of that modest self-reflection helps relieve performance art from charges of pseudo-profundity, and it gracefully anticipates and deflects conservative ridicule. Coupled with associations of "other" cultures with the primitive, it helps put Modernism and performance that much more on the spot. Nor does it in the least preclude the visceral shock that Abramovic repeatedly evokes.

Still, this time she may lose that tenuous balance between comedy and terror, self-awareness and self-exposure. The comedy plays up her implicit identification of the body with a transcendent human essence, of suffering with artistic truth, a problem at times for Ana Mendieta as well. Three years before, Abramovic's Room with an Ocean View shook me deeply, in a performance that placed her face to face not just with the limits of her endurance, but with the viewer's gaze and temporal existence as well. Her fall recreations of fabled past performances held viewers equally rapt evening after evening. When she pulls off that discomforting bond with her audience, she soars. When she puts too much stress instead on her bond with the earth itself, I may not always peer as deeply into the ocean, at least with a straight face.

Beyond the coffee table

If Rebecca Horn did not suffice, Chelsea for several weeks held a positive hornucopia. As with her or indeed Abramovic, a single face dominates Roni Horn's latest work. The extraordinarily handsome woman makes little effort to play for or to the viewer. She does not flirt, withdraw, smile broadly, or weep. The more than one hundred head shots withhold a stage or setting, and they allow no room for gestures. One interprets at one's peril.

Still, one cannot help looking at her, and one can hardly help looking for signs of her changing mood. One notes her hair falling freely or drawn back, like materials for Kiki Smith, and her lips slightly spreading or tightening. She tends to look just a touch off-center, as if to tempt one to define one's engagement. The color photographs ask one to define the artist's engagement as well. In their apparent frankness and the camera's endless absorption, one may look to them, too, for an encounter with the artist, roughly the same age as her subject. One could mistake them for self-portraits.

Actually, they depict someone more used than even an artist to images, role-playing, and veiled self-revelation. Isabelle Huppert, the actress, also serves as the center of attention at P.S. 1, which displays another hundred photographs spanning her career, along with videos by Robert Wilson and Gary Hill. As in the theater, Wilson aims for grandeur and mystery, with a soundtrack to match, but he tries way too hard. Hill shows her full length, on split screens, looking in different directions with varied degrees of patience. He gives her a very particular place to stand, close to the gallery floor, while dispersing her attention and the viewer's. Even constrained by the curator's theme, Hill continues his usual probing of seeing, remembering, knowledge, and identity.

The room of Huppert photos at P.S. 1 runs into a serious problem: it is headed for a coffee-table book, and it looks that way, too. One values the permutations in photographs by Cindy Sherman, in their play with stereotypes of gender and genre. However, they assume the existence of film and fashion photography, so why should Huppert's career as what the exhibition calls "A Woman of Many Faces" some as a surprise? At best, by drawing on photographers as distinguished as Robert Doisneau and Richard Avedon, they implicate art in the manufacturing of culture, but you knew that. Mostly, they just contribute yet another commodity.

Horn appears briefly at P.S. 1, too, by the entrance, but it only makes her seem too much in search of an icon herself. On her own in her gallery, that burden falls entirely on the viewer. Horn allows one to imagine each pose as natural, just long enough to wonder why. She allows one, too, to treat the actress—really just a year older than Horn herself—as an idealized portrait of the artist, a symbol of the art world's own star culture, or a reflection on the viewer who demands both. A woman lies on each side of the camera, with the gallery-goer caught somewhere in the middle.

Horn also displays some of her translucent sculpture, in more or less regular shapes low to the ground. Colored glass in her hands can take on the cloudiness of resin, the transparency of air, and the illusion of pools of water within. Other photographs, however, maintain the enigma of her portraits. Two large black-and-white works assemble fragments of a woman's locker room, from a pool or spa in Iceland, to which Horn has often returned. The breach of privacy again suggests a link between the space of art and gender. The numbered doors and confined quarters almost suggest both as a prison, and it is a tribute to Horn, her namesake, and Abramovic that surely all three could see it from the outside.

BACK to John's arts home page

Rebecca Horn ran at Sean Kelly through December 3, 2005, Marina Abramovic's "Balkan Erotic Epic" at Sean Kelly through January 21, 2006, Roni Horn at Matthew Marks, through December 24, 2005, and "Woman of Many Faces: Isabelle Huppert" at P.S. 1 through December 5, 2005. Again, an earlier review looked at Abramovic at greater length—and at her most hypnotic—while another turned to her retrospective.


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