Rebecca Horn was born in Germany in 1944. As a student she began producing body sculptures for filmed performances. Subsequently she has created elaborate kinetic sculptures and installations, and directed three full-length films. She lives in Germany.

When she was a student, Rebecca Horn became seriously ill through inhaling the fibreglass she was using for her sculptures. She spent almost a year in a sanatorium. This experience, which made her particularly aware of the body’s fragility, has influenced much of her subsequent work.

Ballet of the Woodpeckers was designed for the entrance hall of a theatre housed within a famous psychiatric clinic in Vienna. Eight large mirrors are placed against the wall, repeating their reflections so that the room seems to stretch into infinity. Attached to the mirrors are small mechanised hammers that periodically tap the glass, like the woodpeckers of the title. Horn has described them as being like birds confronted by their own image, aggressively pecking at themselves before suddenly taking fright.

The viewer’s own body is multiplied through the endless flow of mirrors within mirrors, as if trapped in a self-enclosed world. The work could stand as a metaphor for mental illness, or for the way in which a severe disorder can condemn the body to a constant process of examination and scrutiny. More generally, it could be seen as a comment on the relationship between the inner self and outside reality.

The original exhibition was intended as a space in which long-term patients of the clinic and members of the public could mingle freely for the first time. To preserve that sense of encounter, the artist has introduced two funnels of mercury to represent the patients, quivering in response both to the striking hammers and the vibrations of our footsteps.