Cockfeather Mask, by the German artist Rebecca Horn, comprises a narrow strip of fabric-covered metal bent into the shape of a facial profile and covered with glossy black feathers. Straps, which fasten around the head, meant the piece could be worn over the face like a mask. When worn, the feathers protruded from the performer’s head at a perpendicular angle. The performer could only see through either side of the feathered protrusion, which also covered the nose and mouth and extended under the chin. Writing in 1973 Horn explained how interpersonal interaction was central to this piece:
Slowly I turn my face to the person standing opposite me and begin to stroke them with my feathered profile. The feathers entirely fill the space between our faces and restrict my vision. I can only see the face opposite me when I turn my head to the side, and look with just one eye, like a bird.
(Quoted in Haenlin 1997, p.65.)
Emerging onto the art scene in the late 1960s, 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.
Cockfeather Mask appears in Horn’s 1973 film Performances II.
Germano Celant, Nancy Spector, Giuliana Bruno et al., Rebecca Horn, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993, no.15 (see also no.109).
Carl Haenlein (ed.), Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, Zürich 1997, p.65.