When Rebecca Horn was around twenty, she was hospitalised for a year. She had been making sculpture out of fibreglass, not understanding the need for safety precautions, and became dangerously ill. During her long illness, she lost both her parents and found herself, as she expressed it, ‘totally isolated’ (Winterson, 2015). The only art she could undertake practically was using soft materials such as fabric or drawing with pencils. Bandages, pain and the desire to reach out and touch are manifest in her subsequent creation of body extensions, drawing machines, videos and installations.
Pencil Mask (1972) is a framework of fabric straps which enclose the head and fasten at the back. Where each strap crosses, a two inch pencil is fixed, pointing, threateningly, outward, like an inside-out iron maiden. Horn describes how she can draw with the mask, moving ‘my body rhythmically from left to right in front of a white wall. The pencils make marks on the wall the image of which corresponds to the rhythm of my movements’ (Tate, 1973). The mask, however, seems as much sculpture as drawing machine, making the act of drawing difficult and possibly painful. Indeed, the pencils attached around her neck, as a choker, could never reach the drawn surface. The wearer is imprisoned within the mask and communicates by drawing whilst turning their head from side to side. It is the mask which is preserved as a work of art, and not her drawings with it.
This sinister mask contrasts with her earlier ‘body extension’ works such as ‘Unicorn’ (1970/2) which, with its white bindings, reminiscent of bandages, and long horn balanced on top of the woman’s head, evokes a whimsical, mythical, female creature. This was followed by other body extension structures where she seemed to be reaching out to the space beyond the body, trying to sense the surroundings with an altered perception.
‘Pencil Mask’ is more bondage than bandage. If it relates to fairy tales, it is those of Angela Carter’s ‘Bloody Chamber’. It is not a drawing machine; it is not trying to facilitate or generate drawing. Rather, it is mediating between the trapped artist and the desire to reach outside her bonds and create. It speaks of the difficulty of giving internal creativity external expression.