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Blue Monday Strip by Rebecca Horn: Themes and Techniques

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Artist: Rebecca Horn.

Title/Date: Blue Monday Strip, 1993.

Materials: Typewriters, ink, metal, and motors.

Dimensions: 192 1/8 x 137 inches.

Site: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Provenance: Gift of the artist.

Introduction to Blue Monday Strip by Rebecca Horn

The work of Rebecca Horn is appealing to many in the art world. To me, it is appealing in ways that I, as a fellow artist, find particularly compelling; although we work in different media, a common theme seems to resonate when I observe her work and compare it to my own. There is a sense of the fleeting nature of our corporeal existence against a background of the mundane details of life. Her works are animated, though in a much different way than my own art is ‘animated’ The sense of activity and movement I see in her work is something that is appealing and energizing. It brings to mind the limitations of the human body, yet at the same time it brings to light the concept that human activity goes on, even though we as individuals do not.

According to one biographer/critic, Horn’s work is ‘located in the nexus between body and machine’, and it ‘transmogrifies the ordinary into the enigmatic’ (Ragheb, 1993). Horn’s ability to do this with such deft yet subtle precision is part of her appeal to me as a practitioner. She can take everyday objects and juxtapose them with such uniqueness that viewers look at them in new ways. Doing this within my own medium is something I can strive for, and hope on some level to achieve; what she has done with her sculpture, in her unique way, sets a standard I can aspire to in my own chosen medium.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Blue Monday Strip, a 1993 piece that was a gift from Horn to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Blue Monday Strip: Salient characteristics of Form and Content

Horn’s piece, Blue Monday Strip, was actually a gift that the artist bestowed upon the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. This dynamic work measures, in inches, 192 1/8th by 137, and is composed of ‘everyday’ (although some are somewhat dated) materials: older, or ‘vintage’ typewriters, ink, metal, and motors. A crucial aspect of this particular piece is that it is mechanized, so there is movement: it is essentially, animated, and in quite a literal sense. As an animator, this is a feature that is important to me.

Ragheb has described Blue Monday Strip as a group of ‘vintage typewriters’ that ‘are liberated from the orderly office world and set akimbo, transformed into an unruly lot whose keys chatter ceaselessly in a raucous dialogue’ (1993). The monotony of the droning typewriters is clearly symbolic of the relentless sameness that was at one time experienced by the secretaries who operated them each week, starting on the first day of the work cycle—the ‘blue Monday’ An occasional splotch of blue paint—presumably ink? Might we go so far as to say sweat, or possibly tears?—breaks the monotony. The ability to breathe life into inanimate forms in such an effective and dramatic way is something that I, as an animator, find truly compelling.

Another feature of Horn’s work that appeals to me is her sense of perspective; her work is based in reality—a quantifiable and verifiable reality, as I would like mine to be. In other words, much of modern art has been criticized for its abstract qualities; often a sculpture or painting will be impossible to describe until we read the title. Then we can say, ‘oh, yes, it’s clearly a pear, anyone can see that’—when in reality it looks nothing like a pear at all.

Horn’s work does not have this type of abstractness: its primary components are easily identified as typewriters, but because of the mode of presentation, we are forced into seeing them in a new way. As Winterson has written, ‘art has the knack of helping us to see what we would normally miss. . . Artists see better than we do, and help us to look twice. Horn's way of seeing is to go past the sensible, obvious arrangements of objects and people, and rearrange them in a way that is not obvious at all’ (Winterson, 2005).

In this specific piece, the objects before us are authentic, but they are in an unusual setting, one which calls attention to them and forces us to consider them in unusual ways. Blue Monday Strip is, as the title suggests, a ‘strip’, or section, of a life that includes not just one, but several typewriters. What does this suggest, other than an office? An office on a blue Monday? A setting in which individuals—most likely women—find themselves trapped again and again, Monday after Monday, with little likelihood of change beyond the Saturday and Sunday that separate the weeks.

This is the kind of thought process I would like to spark with my own work—it need not be mysterious to the viewer; it need be nothing more than what it appears to the average eye. But to those who care, or dare, to look, it will suggest ideas and themes in subtle, yet consciously planned ways. As Ragheb says of Horn’s sculpture, the viewer can see a disorganized row of machines and nothing more; or, he or she can see something further. One can feel the drain of wasted lives, the emptiness of disappointed hopes, the frustration of unfulfilled desire, by taking a second look at the forlorn collection of typewriters: ‘Whether mechanomorphic bodies or anthropomorphic machines, all of Horn’s works are fraught with sexual allusions and the ache of desire’ (Ragheb).

Horn’s career has spanned over three decades, and though she has experimented with form and theme throughout, she has returned again and again to somatic themes. At times, her work is a celebration of the body, in respectful, awed praise of its power; at others, it seems a reproachful and cynical statement on the treachery of the body.

Ideas, Practices, and Issues Relating to the Body

Horn’s early reading stirred an interest in Surrealism and the absurd; this was further inspired in young adulthood, when she was introduced to the works of Franz Kafka and Jean Genet, and by the films of Luis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Ragheb). The absurdist philosophies of Kafka and Genet, and the obscure themes of Buñuel and Pasolini, are evident to a great extent in all of her works. Yet what affected her life and her work most was what she has interpreted as a betrayal of her own body. In an interview with Jeanette Winterson last year, Horn described two of the key events that caused a change in the course of her life and work.

First was the onset, at age 20[i], of a serious lung condition. This was the result of working, by her own account, unprotected, with glass fibre. No one had told her that it was a dangerous material. As a result, after a period of intense work, while living in a cheap hotel in Barcelona—‘one of those hotels where you rent rooms by the hour’—she found herself dangerously ill. During this unfortunate period, she also found herself alone—both parents had died. ‘I was totally isolated’, she told Winterson. To recuperate, she was forced to spend time in a sanatorium, a setting in which her sense of isolation was magnified.

This enforced period of extended rest became an experience that ultimately led her to consider the workings of the body in a new way. She began to view the body it in terms of isolation and vulnerability. ‘That's when I began to produce my first body-sculptures. I could sew lying in bed’ (qtd. in Winterson, 2005). What resulted from this period were a series of designs ‘that would extend her body’ explains Winterson (2005).

Apparently, this was more than a reactionary phase, as Horn continued on this trajectory after her release from the sanatorium. Back at art school, she worked with soft materials, such as prosthetic bandages and padding, creating protective, cocoon-like pieces. Works from this early period include Finger Gloves (1972), Pencil Mask (1972), and Black Cockfeathers (1971). According to Winterson, ‘isolation becomes a message in a bottle; the viewer can retrieve what is inside’ (2005). Eventually Horn gravitated more and more into performance art, but instead of abandoning the body-extension sculptures, she used them as part of her performance (Ragheb).

The limitations of the body, and of one’s time on earth, are apparent even as the actions of Horn’s mechanized sculptures suggest endless time. There is a beauty in the symmetry of Blue Monday Strip, a duality in the suggestion of the mundane in a setting of what appears to be perpetual motion. To express animation through inanimate objects is to do the unexpected, particularly in Horn’s chosen format. This is what I would like to achieve in my own art.

Conclusion: A Contextual Investigation

All art is contextual in that it is dependent upon its environment. What it is, as well as the time in which it is brought into existence, are both aspects that must be considered when assessing its value. Art that relates to the body is unique in the sense that although our individual bodies have a limited amount of time on this earth, the body, such as it is, is perpetual. It will always exist, though each of us as individuals has a limited time span on this earth.

The work of Rebecca Horn is appealing in a timeless sense; one gets the feeling that it will be appreciated and valued even in the far distant future, in a time when machines such as ‘typewriters’ have ceased to play a role in society, other than as a symbol of the past. Her work is relevant in ways that I, as a fellow artist, find significant and familiar—and this familiarity exists despite the fact that we work in media that are altogether different from each other. Despite this difference, a common theme exists and seems to resonate when I observe her work and consider it against my own. Though we work with different materials, there is a common theme, a sense of the fleeting nature of our corporeal existence against a background of the details of life. Her works are animated, though in a much different way than my own art is ‘animated’.

The sense of activity and movement I see in her work is something that is appealing and energizing. It brings to mind the limitations of the human body, yet at the same time it brings to light the concept that human activity goes on, even though we as individuals do not. Doing this within my own medium is something I can strive for, and hope on some level to achieve.

As Ragheb has written, Horn’s work is ‘located in the nexus between body and machine’, and it ‘transmogrifies the ordinary into the enigmatic’ (1993). I would take these even further; Horn’s ability to find a niche between body and machine has been accomplished with dexterity and precision, yet at the same time with a subtlety that lends itself to individual interpretation. This, in essence, is the crux of her appeal to me as a practitioner. She can take everyday objects—typewriters, motors, ink, bits of metal—and juxtapose them in such unique ways that viewers look at them in ways that are new and yet familiar at the same time.

References

Cork, Richard. 2005. ‘Rebecca Horn invades our senses’. Times Online, Weekend Review, Arts, May 21, 2005. Retrieved from http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,14933-1620638,00.html

Ragheb, J. Fiona. ‘Rebecca Horn’. Retrieved from http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_bio_66.html

Smith, Roberta. 1993. ‘Review/Art; Fountains of Mercury, a Piano Spitting Out Keys: Sculpture as Dramas’. New York Times, July 2, 1993. Retrieved electronically on 5/12/06 from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE3D81E3BF931A35754C0A965958260&sec=&pagewanted=print

Winterson, Jeanette. 2005. ‘The Bionic Woman’. The Guardian. Monday, May 23, 2005. Retrieved from http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1489933,00.html


[i] In the Winterson interview, Horn is quoted as explaining that the onset of her illness occurred at age 20, although critic J. Fiona Rahgreb and others have written the age as 24.


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