I came to know Roni Horn’s work while in Iceland with a friend (we were on a trip I won in a sweepstakes — long story). In our wanderings, we stopped at the waterfront wing of the Reykjavik Art Museum (the Hafnarhús). They had a group exhibition on the ground floor titled Without Destination, which included a series of photos and accompanying text that Horn had created for the back pages of one of Iceland’s daily newspapers, Morgunblaðið. The series, Iceland’s Difference (2002–03), fit well within the exhibition’s theme of visitors and tourists attracted to Iceland for its otherworldly geography. According to Horn, the works were also intended to offer Icelanders another view of their own country.
Horn has been traversing and transcribing Iceland since 1975, when she was still a student of art, first at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), then at Yale University, where she received her MFA in sculpture. Of course, her work is not solely about Iceland, but it seems to be so much a part of her consciousness that it’s difficult to understand her art without also acknowledging this aspect of it. There’s a funny quote from the poet and art writer Eileen Myles about Horn’s relationship to the island in the first essay of her book The Importance of Being Iceland:
Roni Horn had a show in Reykjavik days before I arrived called My Oz. I thought that’s strange. Is it not colonialist? People assured me she had brought a lot to the country so she can call her show whatever she wants. Our Roni they call her.
And so it was with these thoughts in mind — along with a handful of other associations and impressions — that I walked into Hauser and Wirth’s cavernous 18th-Street space to view their current exhibition of some of her newer works.
The show, titled Everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake, consists of three rooms and eight works. The first and third rooms each contain a single work comprised of arrangements of multiple cast glass sculptures. Horn has been making cast glass works since the late 1990s; these two were completed in 2013. The first, “Untitled (‘My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the…),” consists of 10 one-ton pieces of glass in shades of green and yellow, all of them about the size and shape of large, upholstered ottomans. The second piece, “Untitled (‘A dream dreamt in a dreaming world is not really a dream…but a dream not dreamt is.’),” consists of 10 glass sculptures of a similar circumference and weight to the others, but these have a slight bucket-like shape and come in blue and violet hues.
In the middle room, six large-scale paper assemblages hang on the walls — three each of two series, But and Put, all completed in 2013. From a distance they look like careful but bold drawings; however, closer up you can see that they’ve been created by slicing up large sheets of paper that have words, lines, and measurements lightly sketched on them in pencil, as well as heavy pigment marks. The woman keeping watch over this room told me that the words — seemingly random one-syllable choices that felt phonetically linked, like “cow,” “row,” “law,” and “mow” — represent a code that makes sense to the artist. To me, they looked like a child’s secret game, evoking puzzles, deconstruction, and maps.
The heavy pigment marks in the But series incorporate groupings of lines and craggy surfaces that called to mind descriptions of the spreading fault lines in Iceland, where tectonic plates are gradually cracking open the island and hashing the landscape with stretch marks and low ridges that seem poised to cave in at any moment. The marks in the Put series suggest a circumference not unlike the Ring Road that wraps around the mottled edges of the country. The fact that the marks and lines are different only adds to the sense that they’re evoking Iceland, because the country is so young and steeped in impermanence. It is literally shifting and changing every year. It’s as if these imagined topographies are portraits from across Iceland’s protean history rendered by a geographer who knows too well that the map she makes today will be of no use tomorrow.
I like Horn’s work; there’s something cool (temperature, not trends), cerebral, and intensely observational about it that appeals to me. And in my favorite works of hers — including Iceland’s Difference (linked above), You Are the Weather (1995), and Her, Her, Her, and Her (2003) — there’s something seeping and biological as well. What resonates is the sense that she’s seriously and quietly exploring mutability, the tension of surfaces and identities, illusion, and the ways that refraction both destabilizes and enriches meanings. A minimalist line runs through much of her work, but rather than a Modernist search for ideals or beauty, I read a gradual disintegration of wholeness in the quiet geometries she often presents.
All that said, the show Hauser and Wirth left me feeling flat, not so much because of the work as the way it was presented. The conceit in visual art that it’s enough to simply display artwork in a large, clean space remains stubbornly persistent. The gallery felt dead, and the hanging felt uninteresting. Concrete floors, enormous stark walls, and fluorescent/blue-toned lights made the work seem small and failed to show off the complexity of the colors in the glass. The orange tones in the light of the middle room felt warmer but marked a strange contrast with the other two rooms. The space and the works felt remote.
Standing there, I imagined seeing the strange glass pods strewn about on the strandline of a beach like otherworldly flotsam, or dropped as if by an alien ship from the sky into the no-man’s-land of Iceland’s mysterious and empty interior. Instead, in room that frequently echoed with the well-shod footfall of people passing through on their way to some other activity, they felt more like tables and chairs in a museum lobby that were so pretty and strange people were afraid to use them — like design objects that someone would consider as set dressing for a New York Times Real Estate section photo shoot. I wanted there to be life on Earth.
The titles of the exhibition and the glass works are also quite long, and although they reference great writers (Fernando Pessoa, Shirley Jackson, and Anne Carson, respectively), when divorced of context, they come off as a bit pretentious and distant; this felt strange, as her titles are usually more straightforward.
The guard in the first room noticed that I was interested in the pieces and chatted with me a bit about how they were made. I was particularly attracted to the seams on the sides of the green works that resulted from the frames in which the works were cast: they resembled the seams of a green leafy plant, like some enormous Venus flytrap for humans. The guard told me fingerprints couldn’t be removed from their surface, and all I could think was, who would buy these and manage to resist the urge to touch them? Was it a made up caution to ward off dirty fingers or the truth? Who knows. An art world pillar of salt. Either way, he was friendly and warm and somewhat out of sync with the others who strode through the space on their way to elsewhere. I kept thinking it would have been a lot more fun to grab a few of those pieces of glass and chuck them into the real world and see what happened.
Roni Horn: Everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake continues at Hauser and Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 11.