“When you say it’s water, I get suspicious….”
The former library of Stykkisholmer, Iceland, is now an archive of glaciers—or more accurately an archive of their future state. Twenty-six of Iceland’s glaciers were sampled as part of Roni Horn’s 2007 installation, Vatnasafn; Library of Water, and the specimens are now melted and preserved in identical glass columns that appear to hold up the ceiling. The floor is a “bi-lingual sculpture installation,” covered with rubber mats inlaid with words describing the weather in Icelandic and English. The space is now a functioning community center housing an archive of first-person narratives—a communal weather report that was serialized in the local press and likely to constitute another archive one day, possibly in the town’s new library.
The Library of Water is an expansive act of preservation, but it is also an act of mourning. Archives are always partly about things lost and past. And Iceland’s glaciers are literally melting away.
Horn has been traveling to Iceland regularly since she was 19, and so images and themes from the island appear throughout her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Roni Horn, aka Roni Horn. But the water documents from the Stykkisholmer library, which are included in the show, are an appropriate point of departure for larger reasons. After all, a retrospective is also an archive and contains, as such, the same sense of loss and anticipation of annihilation.
The two apparently incompatible impulses of the memorial—grief over what was lost and a celebration of what once was—lie at the heart of the artist’s larger project. And Horn’s work, though varied in form, returns again and again to these contradictions.
The Stykkisholmer water/community center library sits on a hill overlooking the North Atlantic and its eponymous town. It is at once an invitation to contemplate beauty and to experience a crisis. As Horn has said, “talking about water is talking about the future.” And in the age of climate change, the future is terrifying.
But the economic meltdown in Iceland makes it clear that to talk about water is also to talk about the present. For most of the last decade, this island nation was high on the “Viking finance” of borrowed money and inflated asset values and is now saddled with IMF austerity measures. Despite the immediacy of these larger economic and environmental problems, Horn avoids falling into didacticism or the apathy that apocalyptic terrors can invite. She is “not interested in answers per se. Answers create closure. [Answers] are always provisional.” Thinking about the weather is more complicated than thinking about how it all ends—which it never really does.
The series of photographs “You Are the Weather” (1994-96) documents the effects of atmospheric conditions on the face of a young woman sitting in a hot spring. In another series, “Becoming a Landscape” (1999-2001) the portraits are of one apparently unchanging subject, a pool of water, that often appears as something else, demonstrating the mutability between context and content, one always slipping into the other. “Still Water (The River Thames, for Example)” is composed of fifteen footnote-laden lithographs, documenting the surface of a river that, according to the artist, suicides find particularly appealing. As she observes in “Saying Water,” a spoken word piece that plays in the elevator, “no one travels from Canada to kill themselves in the Hudson, or from Ohio for that matter.”
Roni Horn, a.k.a Roni Horn, is less about the weather than what is produced by irreconcilable differences between the weather—uncontrollable, abstract, exterior—and our lived experience. For example, from a distance the photographs in “You Are the Weather” appear almost identical, with their diffuse light and the subtle changes in expression, barely visible on the young woman’s wet face. Cumulatively, the portraits convey an attitude unique in its combination of resignation and defiance. The subject’s sense of submissiveness might be attributed to the artist’s formal control. Horn chose the location, tightly framed the subject’s face, and selected the images based on the position of the subject’s gaze, in short, doing everything possible to manipulate what is seen. The series invites speculation by denying information and, though almost monotonously repetitive, draws the eye to subtle details, such as the wrinkled forehead cloaked by fog, or the eyes squinting as if into strong sunlight. The subject that emerges through this formal control becomes all the more compelling. As Horn writes, “having limitations defined this clearly is identification.”
“A.k.a” (2008-9), is a series of portraits of Horn, taken throughout her life. This is not terribly interesting in itself, but in the context of her other work it does something that self-portraits rarely do, appearing not as the documentation of a living person but as the study of an object, or the remembering of the dead. One thinks of Horn the artist but also of the project of photography in particular and art in general: representing what is not there. From “a.ka.” we move on to “Paired Gold Matts” (1994-95) a memorial for Horn’s friend and colleague Felix Gonzales Torres. Not far from that is “Dead Owl,” a photograph of a taxidermy snow owl that, without its title, might be taken as alive.
The weather, which always returns in her work, is a way of indicating the existence of the sublime: a thing experienced as beautiful precisely because it threatens annihilation. For those of us lost in the thickets of identity, the weather invokes larger transcendent forces. Everyone knows the weather. Everyone tells stories about it. The weather was there on the way into the museum and it was present, as daylight passing through the windows, during every moment one views the show.
In this regard the retrospective is well-timed: the Copenhagen negotiations on climate change dominated the news during the show’s run. But beyond environmentalism or geopolitical relations, Roni Horn a.k.a. Roni Horn serves a less obvious but critical function. Amid the din of opposing end time narratives—religious Armageddon for the Right, eco-apocalypses for the Left—Horn’s work re-examines the intersection of identity and nature and draws much needed attention to the individual’s role in this conversation. Both humbling and challenging, the show insists on thinking about the weather and thus about the future, but it never loses sight of the fact that, like black water, we can’t actually see into it.
In a recent interview Horn explained her relationship to politics. “While my work clearly has political and social content, it is…camouflaged. Work with explicit political content tends to suffer in direct proportion to the permanence of the form employed. Work dominated by political and social issues must bear in its form the ephemeral nature of its content. It must risk disappearance.” Works like the Library of Water do exactly that. Like any truly revolutionary act, they are first and foremost acts of faith.