A major exhibition for German artist Rebecca Horn opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Bunker Hill. It should upset a regular apple cart of conventional expectations. Imagine the apple cart as a self-propelled robot full of slightly kinky mechanical passion fruit and you begin to get the idea. The artist is little known in these parts, although widely recognized in Europe and New York. She is a performance artist-sculptor-filmmaker.
What is it about those multiple monicker occupations that immediately causes us to catch a whiff of the flaky poseur who does many things badly? And Horn’s roles are so contradictory. Despite the recognition of performers like Laurie Anderson and Rachel Rosenthal, the generic performance artist is still stereotyped as an underground animal acting for voyeurs in scruffy lofts and being denied NEA grants for having amorous relations with jars of lard. The only way for such an imagined archetype to be a filmmaker is with an 8mm camera trained on themselves. Betcha the “sculptor” part comes from the performer’s dippy fantasy that by putting on a leotard he/she is “sculpting” his/her body. It seems all those slashes just mean we live in a society that can’t make up its mind.
OK, now try this on for art-and-culture shock. Horn’s exhibition consists of 18 motor-driven sculptures that are more inventive, funny, apt and ominous than any kinetic art seen here in years. Horn’s tatty little home movie is a two-hour color feature called “Buster’s Bedroom.” It was shot by the Academy Award-winning Sven Nykvist, stars Donald Sutherland and Geraldine Chaplin, and has a screenplay by Martin Mosebach and Horn, who also (puff) directed.
Which serves to remind us here in the land of the decreasingly free that they can do things a little differently in Europe. In the ‘60s, Andy Warhol made considerable strides in busting the border between U.S. fine visual arts and the commercial film, but it didn’t take. Today, the spheres remain more divided than the two Berlins of old. But in Berlin and elsewhere on the Continent, it’s perfectly natural for a performance artist like Horn to know film people like Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders as part of a yeasty artistic stew that takes in writers and intellectuals as well. While we tend to specialize and commercialize, they can still hybridize for infusions of vigor.
Not that “Buster’s Bedroom” is a perfect movie. Its tone is set when we see the ingenue film student, Micha (Amanda Ooms), driving her convertible across the desert toward Hollywood, blindfolded. The impression she is a little nuts is reinforced by her habit of playing mumbletypeg very fast between her black-leather-gloved fingers. Her main obsession, however, is Buster Keaton. When she learns he was once incarcerated in an upscale loony bin called Nirvana House, she sets off on a pilgrimage.
Meantime, the hospital’s only doctor has expired from an overdose and the six inmates have taken over the asylum. They are mostly old silent-movie people rendered unglued by the talkies. They love Nirvana House, where they are free to be crazy in bedraggled luxury. An aging grande dame talks to butterflies she keeps in the armoire. One old boy dresses as a bee and another plays gardener looking for a place to plant the doctor’s body. Sutherland is a snake freak. He ministers oddly to Chaplin, who is confined to an automatic wheelchair with a mechanical arm that periodically gives her a slug of whiskey. When Micha shows up, the loonies mistake her for an inspection committee they fear will shut the place down. Sutherland poses as the dead head resident trying to get rid of the girl while falling love with her.
The slapstick-surreal plot unfolds to a somewhat murky conclusion where Micha may be dead, drowning or liberated. The film always looks beautiful, thanks to Nykvist. The cast, including Valentina Cortese, David Warrilow, Taylor Mead, Ari Snyder, Martin Wuttke and Mary Woronov, is unfailingly entertaining.
But flaws are serious and point an accusing finger at the director-writer. The film lacks cohesion--there’s too much air in it. Story points are dropped and symbolism often obscure. Special effects that are supposed to be magical are merely mechanical, so we’re unwilling to suspend disbelief, as in a scene where Chaplin chases Ooms in her wheelchair, cracking a bullwhip. Cocteau or Bunuel might have brought this off, but here we just realize the girl has nothing to fear, even before Chaplin falls in the swimming pool. For all its professional troops, “Buster’s Bedroom” still smacks of amateurism.
So much said, the film is still five times more interesting than your average Hollywood potboiler. It’s to be screened twice weekly until the show closes Jan. 6. Intelligent and seriously intended, it deals with the asylum as a double symbol of lunacy and art. The neurotic Micha has to think twice when faced by real psychos. Does she really want to slip into their world of fantasy? It seems as free as childhood but once you’re in it, it’s prison. Nirvana House doubles for the art world, where people pay a price in obsessiveness to achieve their dreams.
Bristling with kinks and fetishes, it borders on having sheer compulsiveness as its main theme. To its credit, it avoids leanings toward Teutonic whips-'n'-leather sadomasochism. Finally, Micha meets boy and they escape--or almost.
The movie is compelling just by the bewitching nature of the medium, but the exhibition is a more complete artistic success. Horn sees Buster Keaton as a kind of alter ego, with his incredible mechanical ingenuity and pathetic persona. He goes through hell to get the girl and winds up kissing the dog. That kind of absurdity comes through best in the sculpture.
It consists mainly of props from the movie or free-standing works inspired by it. The introductory piece, “Times Goes By,” is a direct homage to Buster Keaton, with its reams of film and Keatonesque Oxfords. The exhibition title, “Diving Through Buster’s Bedroom,” derives from Chaplin’s plunge into the pool. In the main gallery, Horn does a magical job of making us feel under water, using reflections bounced from a mirrored pool by strong stage lights. The empty wheelchair circles, periodically stopping for a slug from its Dr. Strangelove arm. The piano floats from the ceiling, quiet until its guts explode with a musical diminuendo.
Nearby, a fan of sheet music opens and closes--the show’s most delicate lyric. Sutherland’s snakes inspired works that include a long low black box containing a rivulet of mercury that shudders ominously at passersby.
On one wall a pair of mechanical arms scrub the surface black with copper brushes. It alludes to a moment when Sutherland brushes Chaplin’s hair with manic tenderness. You don’t have to know that to appreciate how incredibly lifelike mechanical motion can become. A motorized blue butterfly on the old film queen’s bed is eerily convincing and when the nurses’ blue shoes tap-dance all by themselves, you look around for the invisible girls.
German art and crafts have a long history of fascination with robotics from mechanical dolls to Frankenstein, a flesh-and-blood robot. In Horn’s work, creepiness, absurdity and affection go hand in hand. All come from man’s exalted, mad notion that he can create life without nature’s help.