The installation you’re reading about
‘Ballet of the Woodpeckers’ (1986) by Rebecca Horn — currently (early 2020) on display at the Tate Modern in London. The installation is in the Tate’s Blavatnik building, featured within a mini exhibition of Rebecca Horn’s work.
What it’s like to experience
Immersive — in an eerie way.
Eight large mirrors form a three-sided square in a space within the Blavatnik basement. Around the mirrors are 19 electronically controlled hammers — two to three hammers per mirror.
Each hammer strikes its mirror every 13 seconds before slowly winding back and pausing. They each strike with a different degree of force. Some hit so light you barely hear them. Others hit so hard they bounce on the mirrors. The hammers’ lengths average (what looks like) about a foot long, some a little shorter, some a little longer.
The electronic components of the hammers produce a low-level buzzing sound that surrounds the visitor. On top of this texture, you hear a sparse interplay of the hammers hitting mirrors — adding a percussive dimension to the soundscape.
On the floor in front of the mirrors, two small glass cones stand on their points, half full with water.*
The installation shows artists how to employ sound
To look at, Horn’s installation is a composite of different components. Predominantly: glass, metal and water.
But the longer the gallery participant spends in the space, the more they realise sonic material (the motors buzzing, the hammers clanging) is part of the work, too.
Horn’s installation draws on her long fascination with sound and shows how sound can be used as one component among others in a work of art.** You don’t have to declare yourself a ‘sound artist’ to make installations that use sound.
NB. Labelling this artwork as a work of sound installation art may not be quite appropriate. This work certainly falls in the broader category of installation art. But, ultimately, categorising further would only be important if Horn herself thought of the work that way.
The woodpecker metaphor gives it an eerie touch
The hammers are like woodpeckers. But the sound they make is quite different to the short burst of sound woodpeckers make.
The hammers, all moving independently as they do, mimick animal life. This makes the installation both eerie and intruiging. The mechanical nature of the ‘woodpeckers’ evokes an environment in which the machinations of industrial equipment is autonomous and devoid of human control. Yet the metaphor demands you imagine you’re in a woodland, listening to nature.
You experience yourself experiencing the installation
Horn’s installation surrounds you in mirrors. You cannot look at the installation without seeing your own reflection. As you walk in the space and experience the installation, you also experience yourself (and others) experiencing the installation.
Many sound installation artworks place emphasis on the participant’s act of interpreting the work before them. One effect of Horn’s use of mirrors may be an evocation of just that.
Sound undoubtedly adds to the experience. About other installations that use sound, writers have said that the sonic dimension can ‘temporalise’ the space of the installation by adding duration.*** In doing so, the effect is to bring the participant into the spectacle.
Viewed in this way, Horn’s installation has a meta dimension that builds on a crucial aspect of sound installation art. I cannot think of another work of installation art that both uses sound and mirrors — creating the double effect of bringing the participant into the present moment like Horn’s installation does (but, of course, I’d be interested to know if any others exist).
The work’s history becomes part of the work
‘Ballet of the Woodpeckers’ was originally exhibited in a psychiactric hospital in Vienna in 1986. In those days, participants of the work were patients of the hospital. After the work was moved, Horn introduced the two cones filled with mercury (now water). The introduction of cones takes further the idea that the installation viewer is a part of the work. We could even posit that Horn’s use of mercury, a dense and mirror-like material, invites the viewer to imagine that the mercury-filled cones encapsulate a silvery distillation of the giant mirrors, their previous participants’ reflections within them.
As the work evolved from its original to its current exhibition, the participants of the original exhibition are symbolised by a new physical component of the installation. Maybe the work’s next exhibition will contain a new physical component which symbolises the participants of the work during its tenure at the Tate Modern.
The work is kinetic
Hammers hitting mirrors isn’t the only motion involved in ‘Ballet of the Woodpeckers’. Participants’ movement around the space makes ripples in the water in the cones. This could be viewed as an extension of the participants’ bodies into the work as manifest in visible vibrations in the work itself.
Many people take mirror selfies (and that’s fine)
On my visits to the installation, this is what I have seen many people do.
In a way, this is a natural response to the illusion that participants’ bodies are being extended to a vanishing point in space. Horn has long been interested in the idea of bodies extending in space. She has created several wearable body sculptures that sew together human and environment — see, for instance, Einhorn (1970) and In the Triangle (1973–4).
In ‘Ballet of the Woodpeckers’s original installation in the 1980s, the participants would likely have responded very differently to how participants respond 40 years on. If we minimally agree the participants are an important part of the work, we could also say the installation is gradually developing over time.
*Horn added the cones after the work moved from its original home. The cones contain water rather than mercury due to safety reasons.
**Horn’s work often involves sonic or musical components. For instance, this exhibition also includes a work entitled ‘Concert for Anarchy’ (1990) in which a grand piano is suspended upside-down from the ceiling.
***See Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2007), page 162, where he writes about American artist Max Neuhaus’s sound installation work.