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ART REVIEW : Rebecca Horn Clobbers Convention

October 02, 1990|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

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.

Uh-oh.

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.

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