Roni Horn

Roni Horn’s project-in-progress, “To Place,” of which the traveling exhibition, “Inner Geography,” comprises an integral part, is, she writes, “not really about Iceland” and “not really about me.” Rather, it explores the individual’s “dialectical interaction with a given place in the world”—that place, in this instance, being the remote and geologically diverse Scandinavian nation to which Horn has made frequent solitary journeys since 1975. Between subjectivity and location, body and landscape, Horn cleaves a space of mediation, rigorously investigating the facticity of “being there,” while remaining attentive to the formal and political problematics of articulating that experience. Horn’s careful calibration of various media (drawings, photographs, quasi-narrative essays, and typographical images) simultaneously attests to a struggle to map identity in (and out of) place, and adumbrates the resistance to, and futility of, such esthetic cartography.

“Inner Geography” is comprised of selections from Horn’s four books and from a recent portfolio published in Parkett. A series of small-scale watercolor, crayon, and graphite drawings originally produced in 1982, “Bluff Life,” 1990, presents landscape painting boiled down to what might be called its moral minimum: shapes suggesting—but not reducible to—geological formations cum detached body parts, presented against stark white backgrounds. The photographs of Folds, 1991, (representations of oblong Icelandic sheepfolds), Lava, 1992, (individual or grouped pieces of molten rock shot in the studio), and, especially, Pooling Waters, 1994, (photographs of both the geothermal sources of Iceland’s hot water and the man-made forms that channel that water) collectively enter into a startling dialogue with the works in “Bluff Life” to generate a discursive interface in which boundaries between the natural and the artificial, the document and the esthetic object are disturbed. There is a kind of horror in the very grandiosity of Iceland, which Horn, at her most effective, presents as quite distinct from mere (Romantic) sublimity: the horror that the subject encounters when the large and empty become incorporated, when the terrible power of the historically “new” (geological formations, electric plants, the relentless now of the future) is revealed.

And yet the exhibition refuses to relinquish its back-to-Nature logic entirely, and the touristic existentialism or jargon of authenticity that flows from it. This tendency is nowhere more evident than in the essays contained in the second volume of Pooling Waters: journal entries describing quasi-epiphanic moments; ruminations on Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters; lyric explorations of solitude among the Nordic landscape and wildlife, etc. Horn’s best work exposes the mutually constitutive complexity of subjectivity and language: the “typographic drawing” of the names of Iceland’s lava fields (1991) which “confronts” photographs of enormous volcanoes, is, in this sense, far more impressive than her narrativized confessions; it could, indeed, be said to be more “confessional.”

Despite the incipient narcissism of Horn’s project—what is the “inner” and where does it stop?—and despite the fact that the translation from book form to gallery wall entails a diminution of some of the dialogic intimacy of her work, “Inner Geography” amply demonstrates the intensity and assurance of Horn’s voice.

Nico Israel