Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 7)

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.

Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 7)

May 2008

The protégé in Visual Arts, Masanori Handa, talks about the start of the mentoring year. Interviewed

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts initiative?
This whole project is flying in space – it’s going so fast! What interests me is the fact that I’m here today. I feel the uncertainty about what is going to happen, and this excites me the most.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
No. But the fact that I’ve come this far means that I owe some people who have taught me. I’ve never consciously regarded anyone as a mentor before. I could not single out one person above all the others. That’s why this project is so different for me.

What do you hope to get out of this collaboration?
It’s difficult to define. I’m expecting a lot, but at the same time it’s a completely unknown factor. So I really hope something wonderful will come out. I can tell that my motivation is already quite different from before, thanks to the project.

What was your first impression of your mentor, Rebecca Horn?
She was bright and lively. I was surprised. I’ve seen her work, and I had seen her face in a photograph, but being in her presence gave me joy. I felt that I could really connect with her – it’s as simple as that.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
When I saw her work, especially the one called “Unicorn”, I felt that her art comes with emotions. Like just before a storm comes and hits, you feel it is coming and your senses actually capture something. My work is an accumulation of my efforts to create something, and when I saw her work I felt the emotions lingering on afterwards. That impressed me when I saw it – the spiritual aspect. I liked it a lot.

Do you think that your mentor’s guidance will change your approach to your work?
I don’t know, but I’m excited about this opportunity. And I’m always looking for change.

Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

Beginning again (Chapter 3 of 7)

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!”

Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

Unlikely possibility (Chapter 4 of 7)

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.”

Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

Blurred boundaries (Chapter 5 of 7)

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 calledBlack 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 callsDitch 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 forMentor & 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 includeVorticism (1976), Art Beyond The Gallery (1985), David Bomberg (1987), A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde ArtandThe Great War (1994),Jacob Epstein (1999) andEverything Seemed Possible, a four-volume selection of his writings on modern art (2003).

Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

After a year with the master (Chapter 6 of 7)

Masanori Handa talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

Your art is quite different from Rebecca Horn’s. Was this a problem or an advantage during the mentoring year?
Certainly Rebecca is a great artist, and I’m floating in the air. But I have a lot of respect for her as a person who initiates a great deal, so it didn’t matter what our differences were. As for me, emotions are very important and in that area we have a lot of common ground.

How would you describe the mentoring experience in general terms?
I understand the concept and the goal, and how much energy and time are involved. It’s such a rare project. At the same time I feel that art needs to be supported by the system developed by certain people, and to discover its existence was for me very encouraging.

What has living in Berlin taught you?
A lot of things. I was a bit surprised that people seemed so relaxed. Berlin taught me how to draw a map inside myself, from the point of view of an artist who wants to create something. Also, I like that when I talk to different people, I get different feedback.

Has your work changed during the mentoring year?
It has changed a lot. I feel that the work I’m putting together now is much more open. I have that feeling with my new show in Berlin stronger than the one before. Many things are happening in different levels of my life now.

Rebecca Horn and Masanori Handa

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 7 of 7)

Interview with Rebecca Horn

Why did you choose Masanori Handa as your protégé?
He was the youngest and the most original because he is so far away from any mainstream art direction. This I liked a lot: we are from such different worlds. My condition was that he should learn English, but he was very good at finding his way round Berlin. He’s quite independent, not afraid, and can survive.

Did you have a fixed plan for your mentoring year with him?
No. I never do with students, because it’s very personal and spontaneous. If I planned too much I’d be disappointed. I let it just happen – have a beer somewhere, find a dialogue and communicate. We both like cooking!

How would you describe the year of mentoring?
First, I invited him to the academy where I was a professor. He didn’t want to come: “I’m not a student.” I think he was afraid because Japanese teaching is much more strict, but, in the end, I took him to performances and seminars. He made some friends, and told me that “I was a bit stupid at the beginning.”

Is it possible for visual artists to pass on their skills to younger artists?
Yes, the idea is to create something with deep roots inside you. But I don’t want to create little Rebecca Horns. It has to be your story. And he transformed his Berlin apartment in a totally crazy way: everything there was so Masanori!

Have you noticed a change in Handa during the year?
Definitely, because he really created something new in his different rooms in Berlin. Now he wants to show his work in a gallery, and he would like to have a life between Japan and Berlin. With the Rolex project, the nice thing is that it never finishes – it will continue to be something friendly between us after the mentoring finishes. When I go to Tokyo for my exhibition in October I will see him there.

How do you imagine Handa might develop in the future?
I have no idea, and this is good. It makes me curious about what he’ll do next, because I was so astonished what he did with the palm tree in his apartment. His earlier Tokyo work was more neat and precise. What’s new is something more destructive, more chaotic, more open and more free. It was tough, windy and stinky! This is a kind of crisis, but it’ll lead somewhere. We will see.