Cockatoo Mask comprises a metal and fabric head frame onto which are attached two richly feathered white wings, which close over the performer’s face. As the artist has explained:
The person standing before me touches the feathers delicately, then separates and opens the wings. The spread wings stretch like long bird wings, and softly enclose around our heads. The feather enclosure isolates our heads from the surrounding environment, and forces us to remain intimately alone, together.
(Quoted in Gianelli 1990, p.42.)
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.
Horn has frequently used feathers in her bodily investigations. In Cockatoo Mask the opening and closing of the wings mimics the displays of birds, yet the natural vitality of a bird’s action is undermined by the mechanisation of the movement and by the fact that the feathers themselves testify to the death of a real bird. Moreover, the cocoon-like covering provided by the wings implies that their function is defensive, yet the invitation offered by the artist to share the internal space could be considered threatening as much as it is tender and intimate.
Cockatoo Mask appears in Horn’s 1973 film Performances II, as Kakadoo.
Ida Gianelli (ed.), Rebecca Horn: Diving through Buster’s Bedroom, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1990, p.42.
Germano Celant, Nancy Spector, Giuliana Bruno and others, Rebecca Horn, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993, no.17 (see also no.111).
Carl Haenlein (ed.), Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, Zürich 1997, p.64.