Roni Horn – Entering the Flow-World

March 6th, 2009

Roni Horn tells a story about coming to London in 1998 to begin work on the photographic project that became Some Thames (2000). A long love relationship had recently ended. When that happens the watery dissolution characteristic of falling in love (merging, blending, boundary-breaking), meets its own alchemical opposite and turns dry. It is water – the overwhelming sadness and loss – but it is dry.

roni_horn94_06Roni Horn, Key and Cue, no. 1428,
Aluminium and solid cast plastic
121.3 x 5 x 5cm,
Courtesy: The artist and Hauser &
Wirth Zurich London.

That is what is intolerable about the end of love; dry water.

Roni Horn talks about water – which is usual for her, because she is obsessed by water, but this time she was talking about a very particular water; the Thames.

One river is not like another – and part of Horn’s play with doubles and multiplication in her work is to ask us to be alert to difference, whether subtle or strong. The Thames is a powerful and peculiar river – tidal, brooding, dark, a rising and falling river, once banked by mammoths and deep forests. It is the river rowed by the Romans landing in Britain in AD43. In 2000, the year of Horn’s project, the Thames was the VIP route to the Millennium Dome … an old river, a dirty river, centuries pumped into it.

Roni Horn’s work is river-like: Its doublings, its caracoles, its mirror images, its watery surfaces, its strange depths, its capacity to carry the frightening mutability of matter, (not frightening because it perishes but because it is ruthless in its determination to change), the insistence on movement, even in a solid object, its running conversation like running water, its rendering of the invisible under the visible, its susceptibility to light. Her maps and verbal instructions are a method of navigation. Her books are logbooks of a voyage made by the river itself. She is all flow.

But because rivers are not alike – they are made of water but they are not alike – it is instructive, when thinking about all her work, to remember Horn’s late-found affinity with the Thames. She says herself that she often works backwards, that even her titles, which she calls “entrances” to her work, can come after the work is done. This is common enough in the creative process of artists of any kind, because there is no time in the unconscious, and if you are doing real work, quite a lot of that will proceed from unconscious (re)sources. That wonderful phrase “time is what stops everything happening at once” doesn’t apply to unconscious processes, and so a piece of work can be conceived in an instant – it happens to the artist there and then – but it may take years to make, and wait to be reinterpreted again, much later.

Roni Horn doesn’t like her work being seen chronologically, and she’s right. For us, looking for an entrance – and especially for someone new to or unfamiliar with her work, Some Thames,

or Another Water, the obsessively footnoted sequence of 50 pictures that she began in 1999, or Still Water, (The Thames, For Example), make a bracing dive in and under.
The retrospective at Tate Modern is anti-chronological, and it doesn’t begin with water, but then, it doesn’t need to – the gallery stands on the banks of the Thames. Before you enter the exhibition space you have already begun to enter the flow-world of Roni Horn’s work. Take a little time to look at the river before you go in and your eye will be rinsed of the specks and blots and information overload of daily life, and be retina-ready for new sightings.

Being able to see under water is characteristically Horn, by which I mean that her surfaces are never simply surfaces. She trained as a sculptor, and she likes dimensionality. Much has been written about her doublings and pairings, her mirror images and multiplications, and I don’t want to restate the obvious here, but it might be worth saying that doubling and pairing, mirror images and multiplication, happen vertically as well as horizontally. What is beneath the surface, like Narcissus looking at his own reflection, like the drowned city of Atlantis, like the hidden haul of the riverbed, energetically informs the surface area.

There is always, with Roni Horn, the curious sense of depth. The sense that even on a flat surface – a plane or a plate – we are staring down, into, and asked to find in our own imaginations the silent non-identical twin supporting the work’s surface, rather in the way that Plato imagined every visible form to be supported and informed by an invisible ideal form.

Horn takes the invisible world seriously and uses the visible – the image – to reveal what I suspect she thinks of as the actual – a dimensional, sculptural energy made manifest on a surface plane.

Often, the text that belongs to the work, (“accompanies” is not the right verb), is its double or pair, its mirror image in a different medium, or its multiplication in a different medium. The repetition of the Gertrude Stein-like “My gaze alights on this spot …” over and over again, as a commentary on Still Water and Another Water, holds the hypnotic psychotic quality of the Thames – but I have to admit it drives me mad. I suppose that is what is meant to happen, but as someone who uses language in a very different way, I resist its happening.

Roni Horn is self-confessedly verbal, and she tells us that she comes to her visual perceptions through language. Words are integral to what she does, though as a viewer, I sometimes feel cast out by the language, because she prefers a formal and stylised vocabulary. Anhydrony is Horn’s word for “dry water” but it has no poetry in it, and so I object to it. Horn says that she gets excited by the spokenness of the words – which is a different experience to the writtenness of words. There is a sound installation at the Tate retrospective of Horn reading from her texts. That will let in an alternative kind of feeling. It is feeling that I am talking about here – the visuals are so felt, and yet sometimes, (I feel), the language fights against that, stiffness versus fluidity.

This is not so in the Dickinsons for which I feel happiness and rapture. Yes, it really is as simple as that. When I see them I am carried away, water-like, but it is happy water.

The flow of the long aluminium casts – aluminium is a watery metal, and like water, high on conductivity – is the perfect place to inscribe the poetry. As objects they resemble the water-markers used to measure the rise of water in smaller rivers – notched and recorded over time, they have the magic potency of Moses’ Rod. As staffs and markers, as words of power, as conductors of emotion, they are beautiful and true. Later in the exhibition, the viewer will come across the black Dickinsons, called Keys and Cues, as mirror and pair, as double, as return.

The triumph of these works is in their hold on the material – all of it – the aluminium, the plastic, the words. The synthesis is deeply satisfying. They are sensual objects, playful and serious, entirely about surface because you want to touch them, read them, repeat them, but under the surface is the long line of imaginative power that feels like it is conducting electricity – which I suppose it is.

roni_horn_waterRoni Horn, Vatnasafn/Library of Water, Stykkishólmur,
Iceland, Permanent installation since 2007,
Photo: A. Burger,
Courtesy: The artist and Hauser & Wirth Zurich London.

Roni Horn is a materials girl – that is, she is a material girl fleeing from materialism. The sensuous display of her glass work (Opposite of White, 2006 or Untitled (Yes) of 2000/01), the gorgeous powdered pigments on varnished paper, the columns of encased water (Library of Water) that make you want to press the length of your body against them. When her detractors talk about her work as “formalism”, they miss the intensity of her love-affair with materials. Perhaps such intensity is embarrassing. Love-affairs are embarrassing to outsiders, and the one place you can never be with art is on the outside. We can theorise, conceptualise, compare and contrast all we like, and there is, of course, a proper intellectual discourse to be had about serious work. But then you have to go home with it – by which I mean live with in your body, in your DNA. This is the doubling that is at the heart of Roni Horn’s work; the object is outside us but the experience of the object is inside us.

There is a moving story about just this. In 1982 Horn made a piece, Gold Field – a sheet of pure gold foil, four feet by five feet, that lies on the floor. When Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his partner Ross Laycock saw the piece at the Museum of Contempory Art in Los Angeles, it worked alchemically on them – a prima materia infused with creativity that magically – and there is no better word – gave them hope in the face of death. Laycock felt that his own imminent and expected death went into a kind of hesitation.

Later, and out of the friendship that formed between the three of them, Horn made Paired Gold Mats (1994–95). The purity of the material takes the imprint of Horn’s creativity and of the relationship between the two of them, and the three of them. The mats look like sun on the water. They are still and they are still-moving.

For me, the contemplative capacity of art becomes increasingly important in our ant-like societies than cannot be still. Ant Farm (1974–75), one of Horn’s first pieces, will be re-made for the Tate retrospective. It is repellingly busy – which is fine if you are an ant, and depressing if you are a human being.

Roni Horn, Dead Owl, 1997, 2 Iris-printed
photographs on Somerset-Paper,
Ed. of 15, 57.15 x 57.15 cm each
Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth Collection,
St Gallen/CH

Horn is intrigued by mutability and change. Her paired photographs – like Dead Owl (1997) – are a reminder that the held moment of a photograph is met by its own shadow, that is, the continuing change/decay of the subject that happens beyond the capture of the photograph. The owl is already dead and stuffed, and cannot, apparently, change further, but behind the dead owl is the once-living owl, just as behind the image is the actual.

Horn’s fascination with weather is a fascination with ceaseless change, which the natural world depends on, but which is absolutely not the double or pair of the ceaseless (pointless) activity of humans. As Horn points out in her photographic series, You are the Weather, (1994–96) weather affects everyone and everything on the planet, but now, for the first time in evolutionary history, humans are affecting the weather in return.

Part of her reason for installing the water columns in Skykisholmur, Iceland – she calls it a library, an archive – was to preserve some memory of Iceland’s glaciers. Each of the 24 columns is unique to a water-source. These are endangered glaciers brought into captivity. A zoo of water.

It is impossible to talk about Roni Horn without talking about Iceland. She has been going there since 1975, and she follows the Jules Verne story, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, in some of her maps, pin-pointing the entrance to the world beneath the world, a very Roni vertical doubling.

Iceland is made of water – but then so are we, and so is the earth’s surface. We think we live in the centre and the water is at the edges, but in fact we live at the edges, because 70 per cent of the earth is made of water. In Iceland, this ascendancy of water is obvious.

Roni Horn’s gift is to give back the obvious so that we are not beguiled by the needlessly exotic. Our late-Western decadence is mesmerised by novelty, by shock, by false experiences that must be repeated at increasing doses because they have no meaning. We want skulls covered in diamonds or gigantic golden poodles.

But what’s out there is water, is weather, is the simple beauty of the material world that has nothing to do with materialism, is a regard for natural forms, a satisfaction with what is. And creativity “is”. Horn’s offering of the “is”, the actual, which includes the imagined, but not the virtual, is a love-gift to life.

This article first appeared in Art World magazine, Feb/Mar 2009;
Exhibition: Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, 25 Feb–25 May, Tate Modern, London,; Book: Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, by Roni Horn, Steidl, £42, 2 vols, 230pp