Roni Horn aka Roni Horn

A few hours after visiting Jeremy Hutchison’s show at the Menier Gallery I wandered on over to Tate Modern to see what I could see. Actually I knew what I was probably going to see and that was the Roni Horn retrospective. The only thing which could have derailed this plan was if Defining Constructivism had been dirt cheap. HAH.

So who is Roni Horn?

Roni Horn is an American artist working in New York and, sometimes, Iceland (the country not the supermarket). You may already have heard of her via her Library of Water project, commissioned by Artangel – the same people who brought you Roger Hiorns’ Seizure and Rachel Whiteread’s House.

Library of Water, Stykkishólmur, 2007 - photo by yellow book ltd

Library of Water, Stykkishólmur, 2007 - photo by yellow book ltd

Her work deals primarily with identity. I feel like such a fraud in saying that because the idea of being an artist who deals with identity has been rendered almost meaningless through endless repetition. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find a living artist whose work deals with anything other than identity. Nevertheless, here we are – Roni Horn is inescapably all about identity and because she does it so well I should probably get over the creeping feeling of hackneyed laziness I have when talking about it. Perhaps it would be better if I explained what I meant?

The exhibition can be split loosely into two parts: the part that deals with identity and water and the part that deals with identity and repetition.

The repetition works are encountered first and feature groups of similar objects. There are repeated motifs in drawings, identical truncated copper cones, photographs of dead owls, an ant farm containing hundreds of similar insects … The artist has previously said “the viewer goes from one room to the other, finding in the first room a unique object but in the second a familiar experience”. The idea of identicality here is a myth exposed when each element of a double evokes different emotions (the first ‘Roni Horn’ in the exhibition title isn’t the same as the second).

The most important piece in this selection of doubles – and one which is unusually and arrestingly emotional for Horn – uses two sheets of gold foil laid one on top of the other, overlapping but not perfectly square. It is a study of intimacy, of overlapping identities and of joyfulness. The daylight reflects in the space between the sheets, building in intensity and escaping as a fiery glow at the edges. The relationship between the separate surfaces is one which is hidden from us as is any private moment between a couple but the interaction provides a joyous light visible to all. The piece is titled Paired Gold Mats for Ross and Felix (1994-5), named for a pair of lovers (friends of the artist) who died of Aids, and is, frankly, wonderful.

Doubleness in Horn’s work also allows a space for the audience who can inhabit the interval between the “this” and the “that” – the time in which you walk from one room to the other and back again, or the movement of the eyes (and the brain) from one thing to its twin. The private space between the sheets of Paired Gold Mats is where the art lies and it is in a similar space we, as visitors exist. We move to and fro, back and forth forging our own relationship with the units and creating our own intimacy.

Cabinet of, 2001 - photo by Anna_bloodshed

Cabinet of, 2001 - photo by Anna_bloodshed

Past a wall of half terrifying, half enthralling blurry clown faces you’re into the water section. Water is omnipresent from here on but real literal water is nowhere to be seen (unless you look out of the window at the Thames thus destroying my attempt at profound commentary).

Here we have a giant frosted pink glass cube where crackles on the surface appear to drip and glisten while the whole thing glows with light reflecting off internal fractures. On the walls are photographs of the Thames’ surface, each extensively footnoted to provide a running commentary. Footnotes lead to more footnotes and betray the artist’s deep affinity for water as an entity and a mirror.

Further on are more glass sculptures. Opposite of White v.1 (Large) and Opposite of White v.2 (Large), both from 2006-2007, offer contradictory manifestations of an absence of colour – one black glass with a tar-like wrinkled surface and almost viscous quality, the other crystal clear and smooth as silk. Both are dramatic, irregular, intriguing and unknowable. The fact that glass itself is technically liquid adds to this strangeness and feeds neatly into the water=identity thesis.

After this I rapidly lost my focus. Room 10 involved a lot of photographs hung high to create a horizon running through disparate elements and describes the cyclical nature of existence. Room 11 displayed volumes of published work and accompanying items. To be honest this is where the constraints of a retrospective are most apparent. The drawings that I found hideously dull, but which had to be included because of the representative nature of the retrospective, had used up valuable concentration and curiosity which would have been far better spent on Room 10!

Beyond this we had a soft, rich red-glass mass Untitled (Aretha), 2002-4 which radiated sensuous liquid luxury; the arresting, voyeuristic monochrome changing room/prison/labyrinth of Her, Her, Her and Her, 2002-3; and, finally, You Are The Weather, 1994-5.

You Are The Weather (detail), 1994-5

You Are The Weather (detail), 1994-5

In my visiting-art-exhibitions notebook I had scribbled:

“You Are The Weather – expressions photographed, like reactions to a conversation not just to fickle weather. We are. We Become”.

I think I meant that we have become the water that surrounds and provokes. We see reflections of ourselves in it but can disappear within it. It’s as fluid as we are, as dependent on context, as hidden, as clear, as fickle.

Horn has created some amazing work over the years and most of the pieces within this exhibition provoked a reaction or a thought in me. As with any exhibition there were also some parts I could cheerfully have chopped out (i.e. most of the drawings and the whole of Room 11), but discovering the heartbreaking Paired Gold Mats for Ross and Felix was worth the ticket price by itself.

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