Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Ossian Ward finds eddies and labyrinths in the artist’s work

Having lived on the Thames, in an old converted Dutch barge, and swum off its murky shores, I can say with certainty that there is no space in London more neglected than its river. The embankments may swarm with property developments and public monuments but the polluted and under-navigated waters of the Thames are more readily associated with dirt and death. Every morning I welcomed the uninterrupted panorama of this brown band cutting through the centre of the city and considered the river my personal space, but its real inhabitants were typically a discarded condom or a dead cat.

As background for her various photographic series such as Still Water, Another Water (both 1999–) and Some Thames (2000), the American artist Roni Horn researched police forensic reports of suicides hauled out of the river, as well as literary accounts of murder and misadventure on the Thames. To physically capture the images, numbering 80 in total, Horn carefully trained her camera to mimic the viewing angle of a pedestrian, but actually shot them from a working riverboat – sharing a view of the Thames up close, as only us few river-dwellers (alive or dead) ever can. However, the river depicted in Horn’s series is not a distributary for sewage or dumped bodies, but a conduit for London’s psychological refuse. The variety of seasons and weather conditions that Horn’s full-bleed pictures suggest – from a calm, rippled surface reflecting the sunny sky above, to the churning, grisaille currents at high tide – also have their emotional corollaries, ranging from a serene, quiet state of ease to turbulence.

Throughout July and August 1994 Horn travelled around Iceland, taking pictures of a young woman, Margét Haraldsdóttir Blöndal, in various outdoor hot springs or natural pools. The 100 photographs, You Are the Weather, not only challenge us to see heat, cold, moisture and atmospheric condition in this woman’s features but also invite us to empathise with them. How can you feel like weather, the environment or the landscape?

Another series of portraits, This is Me, This is You (1999–2000), relies
on the imperceptible fluctuation between successive blinks of the camera’s
shutter. Two opposing grids of framed photographs, 96 in total, seem to be identical sets of images of Horn’s teenage niece pulling faces, posing, sleeping or wearing a wig and sunglasses. However, each expression differs slightly from
its opposite number and so the work provokes a long-lasting stare as the similarities begin to fall away.

While, in general, we spend less and less time looking, Horn’s photography activates the long-neglected action of seeing, or as she has said, ‘as we go forward into the so-called “information age”, paradoxically we recognise less and less because we value experience less and less’. One step towards remedying this is inherent within the working method of serialisation. If repetition dulls familiarity by forcing prolonged viewing, it can also reveal hidden movements, minute differences and moments of revelation. I’ll say it again. If repetition dulls familiarity by forcing prolonged viewing, it can also reveal hidden differences, minute movements and moments of revelation, but only the second time round.

Portraits of a pretty, pubescent boy, with unmistakably Nordic, blond, blue-eyed features, are paired with Horn’s latest series of watery images in Doubt by Water (2003–4), an installation of double-sided photographs presented on aluminium stands, recently shown as part of the Whitney Biennial and in a solo show at Hauser & Wirth, London. As the boy’s vaguely coquettish pout turns to a steely scowl, an accompanying photograph of a nameless and dingy waterway seems to duplicate his moods in its pitching arabesques, ebbs and flows. After 15 instances of this psychological interplay of boy meets swirl, suddenly an Arctic landscape appears on the reverse of the river photograph to confound the sequence. Yet now that we have become accustomed to seeking out semblances between the boy’s face and the fugitive complexion of moving water, it seems natural that Horn’s sophisticated vocabulary of aquatics can not only transmit human emotions but also translate impressions of place. After six more pairs of icy terrains and opaque river surfaces, the final seven pendant portraits are of stuffed birds, glaring into camera. This jolt further questions Horn’s technique of visual echoes, instilling more of the doubt indicated in the title. Like the treacherous, muddy water, the meaning of this work is anything but clear.

While it may seem an unnecessarily hermetic tool for the translation of such complex notions as environment, emotion or empathy, Horn’s repetitive use of water as an abstract captioning device is as valid as any spoken or written language – or so she would have us believe. Doubt by Water distils many strands of the artist’s previous work into one installation, and the use of water as word-symbol or signage is a development of both the intense studies of faces and rivers and Horn’s consistent use of supplementary texts.

Words have been integral to Horn’s drawings from as early as 1984, and to her sculptures since 1989, when she began incorporating literary quotes into three-dimensional aluminium block pieces such as Thicket No.1 (1989–90), which included the phrase ‘To see a landscape as it is when I am not there’, and more recent installations such as Key and Cues (1994) or the scatter piece How Dickinson Stayed Home (1992–3), which spelt out lines from poems and letters by Emily Dickinson. Text also begins to infiltrate photographic series such as Still Water and Another Thames, in which the footnotes littering the river fail to penetrate the opacity of the water but do, however, reveal the turbid nature of language and its inability to describe such natural phenomena.

It is no coincidence that Horn has produced books so prolifically, publishing on average more than one a year. Her recent book, Wonderwater (Alice Offshore) (2004), is an un-illustrated exercise in collaborative captioning; each of its four volumes is an homage to the titles and themes of the artist’s various series, annotated by friends and admirers including Louise Bourgeois and John Waters.
Whereas Doubt by Water goes beyond language in its substitution of watery symbols for text, it is also a further syncretism of Horn’s other major concerns: sculpture, photography and phenomenology. By freeing photography from the wall or page of a book, Doubt by Water broadens her ongoing sculptural practice, while also continuing her dialogue with Minimalism and duality. The tall aluminium stands resemble slick signage or information boards but are rooted in the artist’s early experiments with metallic, machine-lathed objects. Many of these shiny sculptures come in pairs, culminating in works such as Pair Field (1991), a series of twinned, flat, rounded, conical and drop-like forms in steel and copper. A more lyrical expression of pairing can be seen in the oceanic, deep-blue glass blocks of Untitled (Flannery) (1997) or Untitled (Yes) (2001), in which one of the solid, polished slabs is black and unyielding, the other transparent and light-filled.

The push-and-pull doubling continues in Doubt by Water, as does the scattering: the metal plinths are distributed throughout the gallery to create a meandering conversation piece. The couplings and one-to-ones have a more profound relation to each other than their minimalist stance might at first indicate. They do in fact relate to Horn’s dislike for gender specificity and her preference for androgyny, not just in her choice of objects, subjects and work, but even in her own identity, augmented by her asexual forename, Roni.

Horn favours this neutral position, without gender recognition or limitation, from which to experience art: ‘The work has a way of developing in a manner that never allows the viewer to become too familiar with it or to make assumptions about it. In subverting expectations you increase the chance of offering a more direct experience; not one that simply fulfils the viewers’ desires or confirms their knowledge.’ In short she espouses the maxim that ‘it’s uncertainty that allows for possibility’ and that the unfettered experiential nature of the work is the ultimate goal. Even the photographic works have mimicked the bodily interaction of her installation works, especially in series such as Ellipsis (1998) and the book Her, Her, Her & Her (2004), both sets of black-and-white photos that explore a Reykjavik swimming pool’s tiled, labyrinthine changing rooms. The first-person viewpoint shifts between empty corridors, locker rooms, dead-ends and closed doors, creating a virtual, photographic walk-through. The repetition of similar vistas reinforces the unhierarchical uncanniness that dominates so many bodies of Horn’s work.

The variable paths into and around the freeform positioning of the 30 individual parts of Doubt by Water only adds to the sense that this is close to a career retrospective within a single work. None of Horn’s work to date has relied on the distinctiveness of one monolithic work; instead each forms a discrete element in a pair or a group, often within a larger series. The photographic and book works are especially mutable, subject to the artist’s final edit or précis. Although one constant remains throughout – Horn’s insistent minimalist presentation – the installation strategies can address problems of plinth-based sculpture as well as wall-based photography. In order to strip away or decode the many layers that constitute Horn’s forests and rivers of signs, we need only submit to her abstract, elemental language and let the landscape read a face, the face read the weather and the weather read us.

Ossian Ward is a freelance writer and editor based in London


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