Arm Extensions comprises two long, heavy cylinders made of scarlet fabric structured around a concealed metal and wool core. As the title makes clear, these two cylinders are attached onto the arms of a standing naked female performer and reach all the way to the floor, with only the very top of the performer’s arms and shoulders left exposed. The outer fabric of each arm extension consists of a continuous strip of red bandage; extending from the top of each prosthesis the two strips of bandage wrap tightly around the abdomen, hips and legs of the performer in a criss-cross pattern, tied together around the ankles so that the performer is completely immobile. As the artist has further elaborated:
Her body is bandaged crosswise from the chest down to the feet, like a mummy. Movement becomes impossible. Both her arms are stuck in thickly padded red stumps that serve as supports for her body. In the course of the action, the performer feels that arms, despite her upright posture, begin to touch the ground, fuse with it, become ‘insulating pillars’ of her own body.
(Quoted in Haenlein 1997, p.50.)
Arm Extensions is one of a series of body extension pieces that Horn made early in her career. Other works incorporating prostheses include Trunk 1967–9 (Tate T07855), Head Extension 1972 (Tate T07846), and Scratching Both Walls at Once 1974–5 (Tate T07846). While all these works seem to offer an ‘improvement’ of human capability, the results are often debilitating or grotesque, serving only to highlight the fragility and helplessness of the human body.
Emerging onto the art scene in the late 1960s, the German artist Rebecca Horn was part of a generation of artists whose work challenged the institutions, forces and structures that governed not only the art world but society at large. In art, this meant a renewed critical focus on the human body, contesting the commodification of art objects by foregrounding the individual. This focus on the human body took on a particular personal resonance for Horn, who was confined to hospitals and sanatoria for much of her early twenties after suffering from severe lung poisoning while working unprotected with polyester and fibreglass at Hamburg’s Academy of the Arts.
Horn has made work in a variety of media throughout her career, from drawing to installation, writing to filmmaking. Yet it is with her sculptural constructions for the body that she has undertaken the most systematic investigation of individual subjectivity. Her bodily extensions, for example, draw attention to the human need for interaction and control while also pointing to the futility of ambitions to overcome natural limitations. Similarly, her constructions, despite their medical imagery, are deliberately clumsy and functionless, while other works attest to the unacknowledged affinities between humans, animals and machines.
Germano Celant, Nancy Spector, Giuliana Bruno and others, Rebecca Horn, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993, p.70, no.1.
Carl Haenlein (ed.), Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, Zürich 1997, p.50.
Thomas Kellein (ed.), 1968: Die Große Unschuld, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld 2009, pp.427–9.