Head Extension consists of a five-metre long, black, cone-shaped prosthesis made out of metal, rubber and fabric. The cone is designed to be fastened over the head of a male performer so that it extends vertically, covering his face so that he cannot see. The base of the cone extends over his neck and back for stability while straps around the chest and waist fasten the back panel to the performer’s body. With the help of assistants, the performer must attempt to move, as the artist has explained:
Only with the help of four people can he slowly move forward, groping blindly. The four people stand at a fixed and equal distance from the performer, each holding a rope which is fastened to the tip of the object. Those holding the ropes must communicate both with each other and with the performer; they control the uniform tension of the ropes, so that he can carefully begin to move forward. The tentative synchronised progress of all five actors, and the shared rhythm of the movement, awakens the association with a silent procession.
(Quoted in Haenlein 1997, p.59)
Developed from a preparatory drawing (Untitled (Head Extension) 1971, Tate T12790), Head Extension forms part of Horn’s series of bodily extension pieces. Other works from this series offer prosthetic enlargements to the face (Trunk 1967–9, Tate T07855), the arms (Arm Extensions 1968, Tate T07857) and the hands (Scratching Both Walls at Once 1974–5, Tate T07846). While these works seem to offer an improvement to human capability, the resulting actions are often debilitating or grotesque, serving only to draw attention to the limitations and vulnerability 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.
Head Extension appeared in Horn’s 1973 film Performances II.
Germano Celant, Nancy Spector, Giuliana Bruno and others, Rebecca Horn, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993, no.11 (see also no.104).
Carl Haenlein (ed.), Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, Zürich 1997, p.59.
Armin Zweite, Katharina Schmidt, Doris von Drathen and others, Rebecca Horn: Drawings, Sculptures, Installations, Films 1964–2006, Ostfildern 2006, pl.29.