Moveable Shoulder Extensions consists of two long, black fabric rods that taper to a point. Designed to be attached to the shoulders of a performer so that they extend vertically from the body, the two needle-like prostheses are secured in place by means of a wooden frame, and by straps that cross the performer’s chest, head and neck. Further straps extend down from the base of each rod and are fastened around the performer’s thighs so that as the performer walks, the two rods move forwards and backwards. As the artist has explained: ‘Every step is transferred from the legs to the shoulder rods, which follow in step with the movement of the legs, like a pair of scissors cutting the air.’ (Quoted in Haenlein 1997, p.53.)
Developed from a preparatory drawing (Untitled 1968–9, Tate T12788), Moveable Shoulder Extensions forms part of Horn’s series of bodily extension pieces. Other works from this series offer prosthetic enlargements to the arms (Arm Extensions 1968, Tate T07857), the head (Head Extension 1972, Tate T07861) 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, grotesque, or, as in this case, functionless, serving only to draw attention to the limitations 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.
Moveable Shoulder Extensions appears in Horn’s 1971 eponymous film and in her 1972 film Performances I.
Carl Haenlein (ed.), Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, Zürich 1997, p.53.
Armin Zweite, Katharina Schmidt, Doris von Drathen and others, Rebecca Horn: Drawings, Sculptures, Installations, Films 1964–2006, Ostfildern 2006, pl.39.