The activation of German artist Rebecca Horn’s site-specific installation in the Harvard Art Museums began quietly. Some in the small audience hardly even realized it had started.
One minute, the wall alongside the museums’ Prescott Street entrance was blank but for the large “painting machine” and three hardcover books installed there. But soon the machine’s thin metal arm began moving from side to side, gently spraying black ink across the wall and onto the books, which slowly opened and closed at random intervals.
About 50 observers, including Harvard students, faculty, and staff, peered up at the work from the museums’ lower level. Above them, Horn monitored the gestures of the machine. She spoke in German with her technician, who made adjustments as necessary from his position on a lift next to the painting machine.
The flying ink created black lines, curls, and waves on the wall. As the amount of liquid on the wall increased, it began to trickle toward the floor in long, thin stripes, and the books’ pages became haphazardly patterned with dots.
Nearly eight minutes had passed before Horn’s breezy announcement came: “Finished!”
The experience “was a very rare glimpse into Rebecca Horn’s artistic process,” said Lynette Roth, the Daimler-Benz Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. Horn does not often allow outside observation, Roth said, but she made an exception for the installation of this work.
An internationally recognized contemporary artist, Horn is best known for her multimedial approach to art-making. Her work has taken the form of drawings, performances, readymade and kinetic objects, installations, artist books, and films. Much of her oeuvre deals with themes of the body, sexuality, movement, and space.
The installation at the Prescott Street entrance is not the only work by Rebecca Horn that is on view at the Harvard Art Museums. Early films and photographs depicting performances with her “body extensions”—wearable pieces she created for her collaborators and friends that elongate or restrain parts of the body—along with a selection of her editioned artwork or “multiples” is on view in the University Research Gallery through April 2015, part of a special exhibition titled Rebecca Horn: “Work in Progress.” In addition, a public program of Horn’s films will be shown in the museums’ Menschel Hall.
The newly created Flying Books under Black Rain Painting, however, will likely draw the greatest number of new eyes to Horn’s work, particularly since the kinetic sculpture is among the works in the museums’ Art in Public Spaces initiative, meaning it can be viewed without the purchase of gallery admission. In fact, the work can even be viewed from outside the building, through the glass-walled entrance.
Although Horn considered Flying Books under Black Rain Painting complete upon concluding the activation, it continues to offer dynamic encounters; motion detectors enable the installation to “regain consciousness,” or resume movements—minus the ink—whenever viewers approach it.
Students who witnessed the activation said they left with a new appreciation for the creation of art. Ege Yumusak ’16, a neurobiology major, described the experience as profound. “To be here when it was created and to witness the work’s movements was such a unique opportunity,” she said. “Even though we’ll see the kinetic sculpture continue to move, we’ll never be in that inaugural instance again.”
Horn was mindful of her student audience when planning the work. She chose the three books in the work—Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, and James Joyce’s Ulysses—for the way that they resonate in a university setting.
“Please read these three books,” Horn implored the audience after the activation. “Even though they are baptized now in black ink, they are very important to me.”