Dia Center for the Arts Part II: February 27 – June 16, 2002
Blah, blah, blah, blah, moon,
Blah, blah blah, above;
Blah blah, blah, blah, croon,
Blah, blah, blah, blah, love.
-George and Ira Gershwin,“Blah, Blah, Blah” 1930
Blah, blah, blah, blah, moon, Blah, blah blah, above; Blah blah, blah, blah, croon, Blah, blah, blah, blah, love, is part two of Roni Horn’s solo show at the Dia Center. Organized by Dia Curator Lynne Cooke, the exhibition is designed as an attempt to examine two primary concerns that have flowed through Horn’s work during the past 20 years: difference and identity.
The gallery pamphlet argues that those who see only one part will miss the complete experience of the exhibition; nevertheless, the individual components of this second half are compelling in their own right, and speak volumes about the way the artist views are making, and art viewing. The show opens with “This is Me, This is You,” 1999–2000, 96 images of Horn’s niece taken in pairs of two with a point and shoot camera over a period of two years. Taken head on, closely cropped, and set in two groups standard white frames, they call to mind school issued portraits; and yet, the wild assortment of emotions, actions, dress, and hairstyle reveal they are anything but. The sheer number of images makes it obvious that individual content is not the main goal of the work. Rather, as in many of Horn’s pieces, the display is designed to actively involve the viewer. It is the process of the viewer understanding the work that drives Horn: first realizing that it is, in fact, one child; then comprehending that the two sets of 48 are not, in fact, identical. Each pair of pictures was shot within seconds of the other, and the resulting range of differences runs the gamut from the obvious to the virtually imperceptible. Finding the subtle changes becomes a Where’s Waldo-esque hunt, and it’s amusing to watch the heads of visitors bounce back and forth between the walls like a spectator at a tennis match.
The series calls to mind “You are the Weather,” 1994-5, where Horn followed her subject, Magret, for six weeks throughout Iceland taking photographs of her in the water under different weather conditions. In both series, the subject’s identity is formed from the relationships between the images, not from a single shot. By offering many perspectives, Horn opens the possibility for infinite mutability and denies the viewer the satisfaction of “knowing” a subject through film. The idea that context informs meaning and identity continues in the large center gallery. “Cloud and Clown (Blue),” 2001, consists of photographs of 16 clowns and 16 clouds hung in an even row around the room. The linguistic slippage is Horn’s way of challenging the viewer to discern why she is highlighting two disparate things, identities that for many have been fixed since early childhood. At a conceptual level it works, for the unusual juxtaposition draws out issues of nature and artifice, mutability and consistency, truth and disguise. The ideas, however, pale when compared to the overall feel of the gallery, which, thanks to the technical superiority of Horn’s photography, is pure pleasure. Standing in the center of the room, circling around, the pictures become a rhythm of color and light as the blurry reds and whites of the clowns are punctuated by the crystalline clear blue skies. A stumbling block in Horn’s work is that her images are so visually arresting that the concepts can be glossed over, seemingly without loss of experience. Yet in fact, it is the concept behind her images that ground them; for without the clowns, the clouds mean nothing, and the converse is also true. The delicious piece of the installation is the pleasure it gives in the moment, and the thoughts it provokes later on.
In “Becoming a Landscape,” 2001, Horn returns to pairs of photographs, alternately landscapes in Iceland and an androgynous young face, perhaps a reference to her own issues of gender ambiguity. As in “This is me, This is You,” the images are shot seconds apart and stir up the kind of deliberate comparisons within the pairs she has cued us to look for. By way of installation, she proposes the idea that portraits can be landscapes and landscapes can be portraits, but the nearly flawless, dead-center, dark face of the young boy does nothing to encourage my imagination regarding this fairly standard point of comparison. Within the landscapes though, there are successes. One pair in particular shows a flesh colored layered shale surface with a sulfurous, bubbling center. The body of heated water is a sexy, natural evocation of a vagina, and the eruption that makes up the difference between the two pictures is a fabulous example of how the earth changes in a matter of seconds. Other than that, the room seems flat, and the highly reflective glass over the dark images makes it hard to see anything up close but your own reflection.
In thinking back on this piece of the exhibition, in particular the title “Becoming a Landscape,” the possibility that Horn is attempting to create some kind of self-portrait evolves. The bland face, with its haunting stare, is perhaps a metaphor for the androgyny Horn grew up with. If this is Horn the child, the close-up, attuned landscapes that shine as symbols of the land’s beauty and mystery, are Horn the adult. An artist who has discovered a piece of herself through her yearly pilgrimages to Iceland, perhaps this is an attempt to show that as vitality and force lie beneath Iceland, so too do they lie within her.
Landscape assumes physical dimensions in the wonderful final two works in the show—complementing sculptures made of black and clear glass: “Untitled (Yes)—1,” 2001, and “Untitled (Yes)—2,” 2001. Poured into rectangular molds the size of a short bathtub, Horn has trumped the standard minimalist form through her choice of material and turned a traditionally fragile medium into a block of strength, in the process, transforming our perceptions about the nature of glass. Once you see both, the two forms are in constant dialogue and it is impossible to look at the one without thinking of the other. Fully opaque, the black seems physically stronger than the clear, yet reveals its fragility as lint, fingerprints, and stray hairs accumulate and stand out against an otherwise dark abyss. In turn, the clear glass is invitingly bare, offering full disclosure of its interior form. Yet it too is confounding, for though the folds and creases on the bottom serve as points of reference for understanding the depth, the bottom appears to pop up, skewing the true proportions into a hazy and elusive scale.
Wisely, these sculptures are placed on their own in the last two rooms. Separated by “Becoming a Landscape,” the visitor must experience one sculpture, while ignorant of the existence of the other. The deliberate distancing and material complexity of this final doubling lends drama and significance to the stark and obvious counterpart forms. However contrary they are, they are also nearly interchangeable, their differences stemming from one minor distinction—color. What we make of their identities is as much about the knowledge we bring to them as their inherent form. The sculptures seem to serve as Horn’s final proclamation—there is no such thing as fundamental identity.
Roni Horn is often not subtle in the cues she offers her viewers, and she consciously chooses different mediums and formats to express her ideas. Wonderfully, her theory emerges with a visual fluidity and poignancy rarely found in conceptually based art. The works in this show are not revolutionary in from or style, yet they are reflective and beautifully created—an effective and able sumnation of many of the ideas Horn has been exploring for the past 20 years.