“Everyone has a story about the weather,” Roni Horn writes midway through her new book, Island Zombie: Iceland Writings. Maybe so, but very few have a whole book about the weather in them, much less a brilliant one. Horn does.
Though best known as a visual artist, writing is a significant aspect of Horn’s work. As is Iceland, though she is American: “In retrospect I see that I have chosen Iceland the way another artist might choose marble as the substance of one’s work.” A talented and precocious teenager, Horn entered the Rhode Island School of Design at age 16 and graduated just three years later. That summer of 1975 she went to Iceland for the first time, where she camped. “My memory of the trip is dominated by weather,” she writes, and it’s enough to call her back. In 1978 she traveled the island solo by motorcycle, living mostly outdoors for six months. And in 1982 she lived in a lighthouse for six weeks on the southern coast. She’s returned many times since. “Iceland was a force, a force that had taken possession of me,” she writes. Her book did the same for me.
I fell into Island Zombie and then held onto it like a life preserver. In a sea of pandemic, of isolation, of a dearth of travel and human connection, Horn’s meditations on a lonely island in the North Atlantic — treeless, windswept, weathery — held me rapt. Reading it felt like communion, felt like being somewhere else, and it held my attention in a way nothing in this pandemic has. Prosaic and profound, Horn’s book felt like standing before art again.
The book includes more than 50 images, mostly photos taken by Horn, from evocative landscapes to unexceptional family homes, parking lots to swimming pools, stray kittens to exotic foxes, and a section of interviews with Icelanders, along with short musings paired with photographs that she created for Morgunblaðið, Iceland’s national newspaper. But it’s in no way journalistic. Horn’s narrative doesn’t unfold via chronology, cause and effect, or even linear thought. Like poetry or music, it is the thing itself. This might not be to everyone’s liking and Island Zombie, despite its title, is certainly no thriller. Instead it’s a metonym of Iceland itself: “It’s action-packed up there, albeit very slow action, not obvious, not always easy to see — the weather, the birds, the ocean churn: an occasional seal napping on the shore.” More succinctly: “Iceland is a verb and its action is to center.”
Horn writes of her preoccupation with Iceland that it’s, “Big enough to get lost on; small enough to find yourself. That’s how to use this island.” It’s also how to use Horn’s book.