Portrait from Roni Horn’s You Are The Weather. Courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth
On the west coast of Iceland, in a town called Stykkishólmur, there is an installation by the American artist Roni Horn. It’s in the community centre, and it’s called Library of Water. Hollow glass columns, as tall as the room itself, are filled with water drawn from different glaciers in Iceland. A customised floor is inscribed with words in Icelandic and English that describe weather, and also moods, which are one’s inner weather. The room overlooks the Arctic sea, so light is reflected around and between these columns of water, changing their appearance. Shapes loom and distort.
Anything to do with glacial ice, and molten ice, sets off an alarm in the modern mind. As ice from different glaciers becomes water and is caught in these columns, these columns become a “library”, a place of reference and memory. It would be simple, therefore, to read Library of Water as an environmental piece, but it’s not solely that.
A New Yorker now in her 50s, Horn has made repeated journeys to Iceland, sometimes for extended periods. There, amid the volatile geology, the hot springs and lava and sea, she has produced much of her work. She is greatly concerned with difference and sameness. Water changes state, weather changes everything. Is this the same as that? She writes: “the androgyny of my name had a deep influence on me … integrating difference is the basis of identity, not the exclusion of it. You are this and this and that.”
Library of Water remains in situ in Iceland, but Horn’s retrospective at Tate Modern, spanning 30 years, circulates the same themes of fluidity and mutability, now muted, now amplified. She loves materials, and works with glass, copper, gold, pure pigment; she takes photographs, and makes increasingly monumental drawings.
The columns of glacier water reminded me of the core samples that climate scientists drill out of the deep ice, which likewise function as a sort of library or memory, recording altered states and weathers, sometimes over many centuries. The first works in the Tate show are also columns that can be “read”. The White Dickinsons use lines from Emily Dickinson’s poems. Solid plastic letters are embedded in tall aluminium bars, which lean against the wall. The words are legible when seen from the front, but side-on they resemble layers, or something more binary, like a bar-code. The first one reads: “I give you a pear that was given me – would that it were a pair, but nature is penurious”. This announces another recurrent theme in Horn’s work: that of doubling and mirroring.
Things That Happen Again is an installation of two solid, gleaming copper cones. They are twins, but separated, each in a different room. You meet one; then, when you pass to the next room, you discover the other, so the first is already a memory before the next “happens again”. You can’t check by eye if they are identical. Sometimes double images are presented side by side, and you play a game of spot-the-difference. Sometimes a person’s face is twinned with a landscape. They seem to ask, “Where does difference, or sameness, reside?” You are the landscape; what you are depends on where you are. In one of the few emotionally charged pieces, two crinkled sheets of gold foil have been laid on the floor. This is gold as pure material, not fashioned into an adornment. One sheet is laid on top of the other, but not quite matching. The light trapped between the sheets is like liquid fire. And it’s private: we only get a glimpse. The piece is called Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix. It was made in 1994, and named for two friends of the artist who were lovers, and who both died of Aids.