Rebecca Horn: Chorus of the Locusts I and II, 1991

Article excerpt

In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.

I came upon this pair of works by Rebecca Horn on a miserable, rainy day in late winter in Hamburg. It was 1993. My visit to the Kunsthalle was an escape from the weather and a way to fill time before catching a plane back to Berlin where I'd been living since the previous fall. I was doubly on the road, away from being away, free, but also somewhat at loose ends, unfocused. There was a striking painting of a Delft church interior by Gerrit Houckgeest (hardly a household name, but long of interest to me) hanging in the museum. I wanted to see it.

The Hamburger Kunsthalle is not very large. It doesn't feature the art of this particular nation or of that particular period. It doesn't center on the kind of masterpieces that draw crowds. It is austerely and cheerfully like a working space: there is a diverse permanent collection; ambitious temporary exhibitions come and go; art students study and even exhibit there. I never did find the Houckgeest (one gets used to that in museums), but there were other singular things: a dark, vertical canvas filled to the top with a flower bed lit from the front - an alternative to a still life painted, surprisingly, by the young Renoir; a "Cezanne" portrait of a man, which turned out to be by Picasso; Philipp Otto Runge's obsessional portrait of three sinister children posing in a garden before a white picket fence; and, best of all, a series of religious panels by Meister Francke, which duplicated the close observation and free compositional style of this painter's miniatures on an unexpected scale and to astounding effect. I found myself, then, in a happy and receptive mood: happy because I was enjoyably involved in looking.

Near the top of the building there was another staircase, as if to an attic. Worth the effort? I went up anyway and emerged in an odd room. I'd never seen anything quite like it. The ceiling was lined with rows of typewriters, neatly arranged. Monumental, out-of-date office machines hung upside down. Here and there and now and then one or two typed away for a time and then stopped. The beat was kept (was that the point?) by a blind man's stick, white and hanging loosely down. The ribbon spewed out from one machine (had something gone wrong? could it be fixed?) onto the bare gallery floor. There was no real reason to bother with something like this, but I was intrigued and stayed on, attending to the erratic noise and trying to connect it to the movements that were going on. …