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Rebecca Horn & Masanori HandaBeginning Again

Published in May 2008Time to read: 4m45s

Masanori Handa, a young visual artist from Japan, explores human experience via his own sensations, imagination and memory – a process that he calls “surfing the world” – creating a series of original works that defy categorization and dazzle, rather than scandalize, the viewer. In the Rolex Arts Initiative, he found an ideal mentor in revered German artist Rebecca Horn, a pioneer in the art of turning experience inside out.

by Richard CorkMay 2008
  • Rebecca Horn
    The Mentor
  • Masanori Handa
    The Protégé

A decade ago, at the age of 19, Masanori Handa journeyed from Japan to India and underwent experiences so powerful and overwhelming that he became an artist. “I had the sensation of being in my own skin among many people”, he remembers, trying to explain how the immensity of India awakened his desire to turn his most personal thoughts and feelings into art. “But later I felt this [sensation] was disappearing, and the mentoring year with Rebecca reminded me of where I began. That’s what is important.”

In May, on a visit to Rebecca Horn’s studio at Bad König in spectacular German countryside, Handa tells me how his inspiration is derived “from places and phenomena that are happening” to him. “I don’t have any way of categorizing or analysing or dissecting,” he says. “Rather, I’m just trying to absorb what’s happening in my senses.” He leans forward, impelled by a fundamental urgency that seems to run through his entire body. “I use my hands,” he adds with great animation, describing how, “as I talk through my ideas, I use materials and keep changing them. I need to vocalize…So I need somebody who can listen to me, and with whom I can discuss.”

That is why the opportunity to meet and share his ideas with Rebecca Horn proved so exciting. As we walk through her studio, a luminous, white-painted interior converted from a textile factory once owned by Horn’s grandfather, the extraordinary range and inventiveness of her barrier-breaking work become clear. In one immense room, several large paintings filled with free and scattered marks convey her restless energy. She calls them “cosmic maps”, explaining with great relish that “they’re all to do with the pulsation of my own body and how far I can stretch my arms to use these fantastic brushes!”

Horn’s physical dynamism has a lot in common with Handa’s energy, even though they are in other respects very contrasted as artists and individuals. German and Japanese culture remain enormously different, yet Horn did not hesitate to select Handa as her protégé. As a teacher for 20 years, mainly at Universität der Künste in Berlin, but also in California, she excelled at communicating with young artists. And now, having retired from teaching in February 2009, she takes delight in feeling that “I have become a young artist again, or maybe even younger!”

Unlikely possibility

Her concern for other artists is so generous that Horn is busily converting the large, blue-tiled buildings around her studio into a foundation. Sheltered by extensively forested hills on one side and a mountain on the other, they were all part of her family’s textile factory.

But now Horn is transforming them into “a village with a museum, an archive, a space for concerts and studios for artists in residence”. The whole visionary project, scheduled to open in 2010, promises to be of inestimable benefit to artists everywhere. Its importance, in a world affected by such an alarming economic crisis, is self-evident. And the visionary optimism behind it will be summed up by a nine-metre tower, converted from an old factory chimney. Horn, gesturing towards it with a sense of expectancy, says, “A beautiful blue light will be installed on top, so at night it will seem to levitate! That is why I am calling the whole complex The Moontower Foundation.”

Horn’s own approach to art proves that everything is possible. Moving with supple and resourceful ease from body-extension sculpture to drawing, film, poetry and photography, she has encouraged Handa to explore even the most unlikely possibilities in his work during the mentoring year. Yet she appreciated how hard it might be for him to break free from his native culture. Horn first visited Japan in 1978, “when I was 29, the same age as Handa is now. I did a performance which was a mixture of traditional western ballet and objects like a little round Japanese table. It was so strange for everyone there, but I like the way Handa has taken Japanese culture and transformed it. He hasn’t become western at all during the mentoring year. What I like in Japanese art is their way of seeing space, both outer and inner, how they use it for meditation in temples and create their gardens. Handa has certain traditional ideas, like his constructed flying dragons in space and a traditional wood swing in a tent – this I like because it interested me when I was in Japan. But now, the new generation over there has to destroy this and make something new.”

Blurred boundaries

Returning to the conversations she had with Handa, Horn recalls in particular that “he said: ‘I’m not so much interested in doing another sculpture, I’m fascinated by smell, wind and shadow, this kind of energy, a palm tree turning with water dripping. You have an idea and you’re like a cat around the milk, trying to find the most visionary way to make things concrete.’ I suggested that it would be good for him to explore performance – making things exist and then disappear again. He made a drawing, and I made a drawing. This is often the way to communicate with each other.”

She also remembers recommending Handa live in Berlin because “I had so many connections there through my professorship, and in Berlin he became part of his own generation and scene rather than sitting here in the countryside and watching me make sculpture.”

The apartment where Handa was to live, however, presented something of a challenge at first. “It was on the periphery of Berlin,” Horn explains. “People try to break in because it is on street level, so we needed strong locks. It used to be a music shop called Halbwelt (Half World). It means half hell and half heaven, but it also means red-light district. And when Handa arrived, there was nothing inside – not even a light.”

Once Handa settled in, this strange location became very stimulating. “Many things came back to me in Berlin,” he says. “Memories and sensations that I thought I had lost. I was very fortunate to have Rebecca, and boundaries became blurred when I was sleeping near the street where cars rush by. I brought a big fan back from India, and all the papers were blowing round. I tested things. Before your hand touches an object, I feel the temperature and humidity of it. I was really touched when Rebecca talked about her work and described wrapping an egg gently. She cherishes these sensations, and I got a lot from her.”

Handa shows me some extraordinary new drawings, explaining that one especially apocalyptic image was made after his powerful imagination convinced him that “I saw there was a tornado in my room”. Another drawing conveys his feeling that he “was lost in a jungle, going to the bathroom in the middle of a dark night”. And the complexity of Handa’s emotions grows vividly clear when he produces a drawing called Black Mountain Black Smoke. “It becomes an atomic reactor,” he tells me, “and then it becomes a furnace. It becomes summer. It becomes hope.” Handa is fired by positive emotions, as well as more disturbing impulses, nowhere more than in a drawing he calls Ditch Delta: “The figure is in a huge room where the floor is painted like a riverscape going in different directions. He feels at ease because it’s closer to the ocean. The water is not clean – there is a smell. But I grew up by the sea, and I like to ‘surf the world’ in my work.”

Nowhere did Handa surf more successfully than in his Berlin apartment, where he made a dramatic installation towards the end of his mentoring year. “We talked about him doing something in the apartment, moving through the space,” recalls Horn. “He came up with transforming this very strange apartment in a totally crazy way. He pushed his bed through the window, so part of his body was in the room and part outside in the greenery, like floating in the air. And he ordered an upside-down palm tree, moving and rotating with water on top. It was a smelling sculpture. He invited the whole street in, so they decorated the palm tree like a Christmas tree – it was very Masanori!”

Handa smiles and explains with satisfaction that “when Rebecca proposed I do this show in my apartment, I truly appreciated it. She was helping me to do it my way. It made me feel so happy, because I realized it might be a gallery space. I really felt moved by her suggestion, and I felt it was the right thing to do.”

Extracted from an article written by Richard Cork for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2008/2009 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Richard Cork is an award-winning art critic, historian, broadcaster and curator, whose books include Vorticism (1976), Art Beyond The Gallery (1985), David Bomberg (1987), A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and The Great War (1994), Jacob Epstein (1999) and Everything Seemed Possible, a four-volume selection of his writings on modern art (2003).


Rolex Mentor and Protégé