PRINT Summer 2007


Roni Horn

HIGH UP on a slight promontory at Stykkishólmur, a small town of about a thousand inhabitants on the far west coast of Iceland, sits a modest building that used to be the local library. It has one striking feature: a huge bay of glass offering a 180-degree prospect on the town’s harbor, the lighthouse, and then the infinite seascape and the archipelago of islands (visible or not, depending on the weather) beyond. It is here that Roni Horn has made Vatnasafn/Library of Water, 2007, which has been commissioned by Artangel, and is the London-based nonprofit’s first project outside the UK. Instead of books, there are now twenty-four glass pillars, filled with the melted ice of twenty-four glaciers from all over Iceland, scattered across an otherwise empty room. The installation is very spare. Each column is subtly lit from above and appears to emanate light from within. An ocher rubber floor is incised, seemingly at random, with a series of words in English and Icelandic that describe both weather and people. The English words include cold, calm, and fierce; many of the Icelandic words aren’t readily translatable—suddalegt, for instance, means muggy weather or an unpleasant person, the metaphorics of which are intriguing in English. The exact meanings don’t matter as much as the sense of an emotional climate, in two languages yet lost in translation, spread out laterally across the floor. Weather is not only outside but inside this space. Weather is everywhere, outside and inside us, too.

There is something very palpable about the words cut into the floor; you feel them beneath your feet as you walk around the installation. And there is a kind of weightlessness to the water in the pillars. It is like being caught in the cross fire of weather and in what literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky once called a “blizzard of associations.” And there is more, because this is not only a sculptural installation, but an ambitious project that extends beyond the room with a view—which has itself been transformed into a community center and space for all sorts of activities, from chess to yoga. There is also a book, Weather Reports You, that collects stories about the weather as recounted by local people, and a website archiving more of these stories. While Horn has a long association with Iceland—she has been going there since the 1970s, and her intimate involvement with the place has generated a number of projects— the sense of community intrinsic to Vatnasafn/Library of Water is far stronger than anything previously encountered in her work. She has been working on the project’s various initiatives for several years in collaboration with the residents of Stykkishólmur, and in an important sense, the work will be completed only as it is absorbed into the life of the community.

For a work by an artist who claims to be not as interested in the visual as in the idea, the installation—the pillars filled with glacial waters—is hugely seductive. It is simple and economical, but its effects are complex and remarkably sensual. Collected from the glaciers over the past year and a half, the ice was kept frozen until last February. Two columns remain cloudy and opaque, and even those that are entirely clear vary slightly in the color of their “clearness.” Of course, with the effects of the weather and the time of day, they change continually, momentarily. And as they run from transparent to opaque, they also straddle the visible and the invisible. When I arrived, sleet obscured the view of the harbor, but half an hour later it had cleared to a crystal brightness—which is typical of the sudden changes in Icelandic weather. The glass columns take this meteorological pulse. As you move among them, not only the other pillars but also people are reflected in them. And, most spectacularly—if you can use that word in this place of intense stillness—the surroundings, the color blocks of the painted corrugated-metal houses, the vast seascape, are contracted in them as the columns act like vertical lenses. Or better, like light meters: ever-changing in their susceptibility to weather conditions, registering time as well as space. Horn has likened the work to a lighthouse where the viewer becomes the light. It is as if a vast outside is concentrated and collected, like the water itself, inside the glass pillars. This is an inside-out panorama. As a consequence, the center is fragmented, making liquid images, reminiscent of the way Wallace Stevens wrote of the “filaments of your eyes / on the surface of the water”—images where body and world dissolve into each other.

This seems to me the structuring logic of the work: The outside becomes an inside that draws into itself the traces of the environmental conditions that surround it. Horn has said that “Iceland is a verb and its action is to center”—which is a vivid way of thinking about what “to center” might mean. As the viewer moves around the library’s interior, it becomes clear that the center is far from still, but falls into pieces in the sheer bodily experience of the work. This does not seem to me a place of inward contemplation in the sense in which it is usually understood; it is a place to think in, where thought may briefly focus only to wander elsewhere. There seems to be no skin between the inside and outside of the pillars, or between the columns of water and the vast glass bay window, extending out to the community and beyond, to the geography of Iceland, and then again beyond, to the weather itself, felt as the physical sensation of the raw bluster of wind on skin, but also making itself felt in the huge political and social ramifications of climate change. There is little to shield you in this exposed place, either from the weather or from the experience. Language permeates your surroundings in the words that fill the weather reports and the words that are detached from narrative and remaindered on the floor. Here words are no shield; they are so much residue, like the actual sediment from the glaciers that has settled to make the bases of some of the pillars resemble miniature lava fields. A cool, clear installation of still water turns out to be a volatile place.

I find it hard to think about Vatnasafn/Library of Water without thinking of the journey to it across a staggering landscape of lava fields and volcanic rock formations. It makes me think of other journeys I have made, to Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, or, more recently, to Process Observatory House, Gabriel Orozco’s house-cum-observatory-cum–giant sculpture on the Mexican coast. But I hesitate: The trope of travel seems in danger of falling into what is now an overused critical narrative and missing the radical specificity of Horn’s project (or indeed of Judd’s or Orozco’s). In the library at Stykkishólmur, the local landscape and weather are involuted into the work. You could call it psychogeology, a variation of the dérive, or drift, of Situationist psychogeography. Vatnasafn/Library of Water invokes, too, Robert Smithson’s model of the sedimentary layers of an entropic landscape, though in Horn’s work I think the relatively young landscape of raw volcanic activity suggests much more forcibly a psychic space of desire. The young adolescent faces she uses in photographic works like Doubt by Water, 2003–2004, precisely imprint the coming-into-being of the psychogeologic landscape. Certainly water does not act as a straightforward symbol in this context but instead suggests a complex temporality. While water in art has historically invoked the idea of a source or an origin, the water from these twenty-four glaciers is in fact the residue of millions of years of the earth’s formation. Water, in the imagination, runs the gamut between the pure and the toxic, life and death. Horn’s installation is no idealistic retreat into “pure” nature—it is a reflection on what water may say about us. And water precisely cannot be conceived as separate from the weather or from what is systemically happening to the weather through climate change. Weather, then, provides a palpable if often invisible interface between an intensely subjective bodily and affective experience and the movements of industrial capital that have led to global warming. On the microlevel of the local weather reports, a nun, entranced by the northern lights, describes how “the weather is like a part of my body.”

Judd was an early collector of Horn’s work, and he installed a piece at Marfa, where she visited him on several occasions. But the relation to place of Vatnasafn/Library of Water, together with its intense sensitivity to social community, is radically different from Judd’s relation to the inhabitants of the Texas town. It might be useful to see the work of Judd and Agnes Martin, another artist in love with empty landscapes, as twin historical impulses informing Horn’s work. Martin was a tough artist whose so-called retreat to the desert always seems to me to have not been a retreat at all. Horn has at times noted similarities between the wild, remote Icelandic landscape and high desert, but that does not mean it is empty. On the contrary, it is surprisingly reminiscent of Martin’s fierce and relentless sense that a void may, in fact, be filled with sensual and infinitesimal incident (and it is also reminiscent of Vija Celmins’s more recent desert drawings). In Vatnasafn/Library of Water the friction that emerges between a desire for solitude and a desire for communality recalls this paradox. Part of the radical shift marked by the project, in fact, is that it brings this dialectic between solitude and communality to the fore. Horn’s “retreats” actually mark out a space of resistance. Her installation of glacial waters, like any collection, is driven by desire, even as it is held together in a state of group limbo; and in her desire for solitude I think there is a political and ethical as well as a psychic claim being made, a determined insistence on whatever is left of desire that cannot be entirely turned into a fetish object, as most everything else is.

Alongside Vatnasafn/Library of Water at Stykkishólmur, there is a major exhibition of Horn’s work, “My Oz,” at the Reykjavík Art Museum. “My Oz” will not travel, a refusal that is, again, a distinctive and deliberate gesture of resistance to the usual tidal movements of international exhibitions, and one that stresses the particular attachment of this exhibition to the place and to the moment. There is plenty of evidence in the show of Horn’s own long-standing preoccupation with the notion of an archive of water, including her group of photographs Still Water (The River Thames, for Example), 1999, in which tiny numbers, superimposed on the agitated surface or otherwise unchartable eddies of blackness, correspond with the text of something like footnotes running along the bottom of the images. There is also some new glass sculpture; the outsides of these works are rough and opaque, the insides smooth like the stillest water. Light seems to burn through them with the somber embers of an ashen vision. The deep amber glass could invoke molten lava, or it could be the corrosive color of pollution—hard to tell. These sculptures sit alongside the drawings that are so central to Horn’s activity as an artist. The drawings are cut and reassembled, overlaid with the “fine drizzle” of her pencil notes, in which drawing becomes writing as well as cutting. They often have one or two “centers,” or islands of lines and marks. But like the center that is the library of water—or like the sense that Horn has of Iceland as a place that “centers”—what is at stake is a place of dissolution, a center that is not one. Horn has called the floor of her library a “drawing,” and this idea of a field of drawing permeates her work and could function as a kind of encompassing metaphor for that body of work in its entirety. In this sense you can see the drawings in the exhibition as “maps”—not the normal cartography of land and sea but maps of method. They remind us of the conceptual underpinnings that bring together all of Horn’s work, even though individual pieces may look very disparate. Jules Verne imagined the entry point for his journey to the center of the earth at the volcano at Snaefallsjokull, only an hour or so away from Stykkishólmur. If the journey at stake here is to the center of the work, rather than the world, then the point is that the center is always already dispersed.

Briony Fer is professor of art history at University College London.