Feather Instrument consists of two rectangular wooden frames inside which are parallel wooden slats mounted with rows of white feathers. The frames are designed to be attached to the front and back of a naked male performer who, by means of a string mechanism, can rotate the wooden slats, causing the rows of feathers to rise and fall, in turn revealing and concealing his naked 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.
Horn has repeatedly used feathers in her bodily investigations. In Feather Instrument the raising of the feathers mimics the courtship rituals of birds, yet the natural beauty and vitality of a bird’s display is undermined by the mechanisation of the movement, which transforms the action of a robust, living bird into something fragile, vulnerable and slow. The movement of the feathers may imply sexuality and life, but the mechanical action is soulless: the mounted feathers testify to the death of a real bird. By applying this animal gesture to man, Horn seems to ridicule humans and birds: raising his feathers in a bird-like gesture, the performer exposes his naked body, in all its vulnerability, to the viewer.
Feather Instrument appears in Horn’s 1972 film Performances I.
Germano Celant, Nancy Spector, Giuliana Bruno and others, Rebecca Horn, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993, pp.15–16, no.9.