Roni Horn on Her Opening Exhibition at China’s He Artwork Museum

Roni Horn debuts her art on the mainland of China at HEM. Stand at the edge of infinity and let go.

You know, it’s a funny thing,” remarks trailblazing 67-year-old American artist Roni Horn at the conclusion of our 58-minute Zoom chat in late May. “Now that I’m at the age I am, I have a history, and that history makes me perhaps more clear, more visible, right? But up until recently, that clarity was not perceptible for a lot of people.” Roni Horn does big-picture paradox-related work about meaning, perception, ambiguity, issues of pairing and doubling, de-centering, de-linearising, and has a long-standing interest in the protean nature of identity. She uses a variety of forms and materials – rubber, glass, and gold, photography, drawing, and writing, to name a few. And she’s captivated by weather and water and words. And Iceland. All of which commingle in her work. 

Roni Horn (Photo: Mario Sorrenti)
Roni Horn (Photo: Mario Sorrenti)

 Horn currently has several global solo art shows on view – at the Winsing Art Place, Taipei; Hauser & Wirth, Zurich; Centro Botín, Santander; and the just-opening He Art Museum (HEM), Shunde, China. Up until October last year, she was also part of the Simone Rocha-curated “girls girls girls” group show at Lismore Castle, County Waterford, Ireland, historic home of the Duke of Devonshire’s family, along with Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois and Lu Yang, where Horn’s Untitled (Weather), 2010-11, was on view opposite Sherman’s bus-stop portraits. Rocha described Horn as being “so playful – she takes it to a tongue-in-cheek place.” Visitors to HEM will note that spirit in works such as Dead Owl, 1997, a pair of photographs of a stuffed snowy owl framed separately – gives viewers a sense of deja vu. 

The American artist David Salle once told us of his painting process: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” And so it feels with Horn, where nothing is ever resolved or adds up. About which she’s very candid.

“I often don’t know what I’m getting into,” she matter-of-facts with a smile. “There is so much paradox in there, and I dive into a paradox and never really come out. And that’s the beauty of it. I’m not really giving you any final position in the work. And there’s all these balls in the air at the same time. I keep going into paradox as a source of truth, or experiential truth.” 

Roni Horn, Or 7, 2013/2015 (Photo: Tom Powell)
Roni Horn, Or 7, 2013/2015 (Photo: Tom Powell)

In fact, to be in the presence of Horn’s work – Portrait of an image (with Isabelle Huppert), 2005-06, fifty close-up photographs of French actress Isabelle Huppert recreating roles she played in her films; Still Water (The River Thames, for Example), 1999, footnoted photographs of the water of The Thames in London; and Gold Mats, Paired – for Ross and Felix, 1994/2021, two sheets of pure gold foil emitting a luminous life-force from within – is like standing at the edge of infinity, where everything begins but has no end. 

Horn’s artistic life has been influenced by Iceland, which she first visited in 1975, before making a serious trip four years later and the force of the place “taking possession” of her thereafter. She loved its potential for solitude. “Solitude is often mistaken for loneliness. For me they are opposites. Loneliness is a place of longing, of discomfort in being alone. Solitude is an experience – one that can challenge and enlighten. It is something I seek out, and have sought throughout my life. Solitude is great terrain for the imagination.” 

Roni Horn, Dead Owl, 1997 (Photo: Francois Deladerrière)
Roni Horn, Dead Owl, 1997 (Photo: Francois Deladerrière)

Witness this excerpt from “The Cold Blood of Iceland”, 1990-91, included in Island Zombie: Iceland Writings, published in 2020. 

There are no reptiles here. No snakes, no crocodiles or alligators. No lizards, turtles, or frogs. No mammals that could hurt you, either… Essentially there is no violence.

No irrational threats. No intimidating predators… Relief from fear is freedom. 

But there’s something else here: the weather. The weather is here instead – a Freudian slip of ecology. As though weather was wittily and mercilessly substituted for reptiles. Weather, a natural force magnified by island circumstance, is the cold blood of Iceland. Weather with its amoral, wanton violence is lethal here. 

 Weather moves rivers and makes them, too. Weather blows roads away or turns them into mud. It washes the rocks out of the mountains and dams the roads. The weather is one thing here and fifty feet away something else. Cars are blown off roads… the winds can get so bad you must crawl on the ground to get through. Sandstorms stop visibility a foot in front of your face; this is a way of being lost without having gone anywhere… 

When a field becomes a lake it’s intimidating just standing near. These instant lakes have properties unpredictable and unmapped. Encountering these new bodies of water presents a unique form of being lost. You are lost not because you don’t know where you are but because where you are is not what it is.

Roni Horn, Attention – Torrid Zone · Yellow Hope, 2022 and detail from An elusive Red Figure…, 2022 (Photo: Tom Powell)

Which sounds a lot like her show titles; “I am paralyzed with hope” at Centro Botín, and “A dream dreamt in a dreaming world is not really a dream … but a dream not dreamt is,” at HEM. Horn took ‘I am paralyzed with hope’ from American comedian Maria Bamford, and the HEM title from, well, China. “You know what? I took that from an author [Anne Carson], who has taken it from a Chinese proverb,” she says. “I don’t know what the original proverb was. I like this expression in English. When I suggested the title the Chinese were very excited about it. It held up. And again that paradox comes into play.” 

How thrilling has the experience of showing at HEM been thus far? Horn describes the Tadao Ando-designed museum as being “a very influential building for this particular show.” And elaborates. “First of all, it’s 2,500 square metres; so it’s a lot of space. And the building is circular. And it’s Ando, Tadao Ando. He is a very clear, no-nonsense architect; so it’s about materials, proportions, simplicity, and in general I’d say his work is very generous towards the artist. I threw away all my usual habits and it was an opportunity to do something different.” At which point she goes into shared screen mode and tours me around the building.  

Roni Horn, Skulls of the World Unite · Orange Hope, 2022 and
detail from An elusive Red Figure…, 2022 (Photo: Tom Powell)

As she’s showing me around I tell her she should sell more of her writing, that it would sit more than respectably next to Joan Didion or Virginia Woolf. (She laughs at the Didion reference). “I’m a fan of Didion’s work. So much of what she writes about is, like my work, empirically based. She’s talking about her life, and it’s expanding out into a more global connection. I think I might be a bit more enclosed in my solitude than Didion.” And Woolf? “I am a fan of the novels but also her own personal writings, diaries; she was so prolific, and there was an edginess. You felt discomfort. That’s something I relate to.”

And how Zen or dao is Roni Horn? “I am a tourist at understanding these things,” she says, but reveals that Shinto fascinates. “The Shinto perspective interests me because of its focus on the actual, and that’s something very important in my work, and in that way, I sense I’m behind the times. I still focus on the idea of the experiential as the prime focus of my work, i.e. look where I’m going to take you. And to do that you have to be present, and by that, I mean … paying attention is becoming a lost art, and that’s always been a big part of my practice. I’ve always thought attention was a choice, and an act, as opposed to a passive condition; it’s part of how I live my life. I also deeply, deeply, endlessly value Nature and the exquisite balance of interplay that’s so far beyond our knowing, that to be in the presence of experiences offered by Nature, it’s like water. It never becomes familiar; it keeps its distance. How can water always be provocative? And so unfamiliar, I love that paradox about water.” To read Horn on water, and especially ‘black water’, is poetry of the dark avant-garde.

The paradox of Iceland has become the level of digital intrusion. Horn’s beloved solitude is no more. “The phone has evolved into a tracking tool. And it made me realise getting lost is over now. It’s over. You might think you’re lost, but you’re not. And so as we remove that element of friction and disturbance that Iceland offers me – the potential to get lost – the idea of not being able to be alone anymore, is probably what shifted my relationship to Iceland more than anything. Iceland is too fragile to fuck with. But I love the people of Iceland and I’m still devoted to it.” She recently obtained Icelandic citizenship. “They gave me the Bobby Fischer passport,” she jokes, a reference to the former US chess grandmaster who was granted exile – and citizenship – by the Icelandic parliament.

Roni Horn, Two Pink Tons, 2008 (Photo: Roni Horn Studio/ He Art Museum)

Since the mid-1990s, Horn has been producing cast-glass sculptures, of which several, including Water Double v.1, 2013-15, and Untitled (“A witch is more lovely than thought in the mountain rain.”), 2018-2020, are on view at HEM. For these works, molten glass assumes the shape and qualities of a mould as it gradually anneals over several months. The top surface forms a meniscus of liquid under tension. The seductive tension invites the viewer to gaze into the optically pristine interior of the sculpture as if looking down on a body of water through an aqueous oculus. And the innumerable shifts in the work’s appearance place it in a protean state, or eternal state of mutability, refusing a fixed visual identity.    

Sample this excerpt from “Pronouns Detain Me,“ 1990-91, from Island Zombie on identity.

The kayak heads towards me. Approaching the shore, the oarsman gets out and lands the kayak, dragging it up from the water. As he pulls his wetsuit off, the delicacy of his proportions and the fineness of his skin transfix me. When he takes his cap off the longish hair falls to enlighten me. The fullness of his chest in silhouette provokes
no doubt. He is a woman. 

 Instantly the history of watching is recast as a slow caress, an erotic dream of unexpected fulfilment. The sea becomes an extended sexual event with a climax that attenuates until I am aware, not that it’s over, but that it never ended.

 I lay back on the grassy shore, grinning. Peering up at the clouds I squint, first the right eye then the left: the sun darts back and forth in the sky. As the sun jumps my anger returns; I want a language without pronouns. I want to come, direct and complete, without pronoun.

Roni Horn, Untitled (Weather), 2010-2011 (Photo: Stefan Altenburger)

Horn’s ultimate go-to writer is Emily Dickinson. Why? “When I was younger I tried to read Dickinson many times but I was never able to… I couldn’t relate, it didn’t add up, and then randomly I pulled her off the shelf and I just couldn’t put it down. I really felt a close identity with her, it’s just a very strong identification.

“In Dickinson’s case it’s her empirical relationship to the world. She didn’t travel. She lived at home all her life and from that she created or invented a world. I think improvisation played a big role in that somehow. That was in the early ‘90s, and I stuck with her. I read the letters later, her letters are poetry too. So many of her first lines are complete in themselves and I was really taken with that.” [Surely Dickinson would voice much the same sentiment about Horn’s one-line wonderments]. “But you know, Dickinson is like an aberration, she’s a one-off. She came at the right time, right place, she is who she is and something brilliant happened.” 

Roni Horn, White Dickinson THE MOST INTANGIBLE THING IS THE MOST ADHESIVE, 2006 (Photo: Ron Amstutz)

Which spurs an interesting thought on the relationship between creativity and luck. “I often think that so little of creativity is actually ‘in the art’. We often overestimate that. A lot of what we know as great art, or so-called art, really comes out of being in the right time, right place, right person, more than it’s a masterpiece, it’s genius.” 

Horn assesses her own evolution as a form of “perpetual education”. Especially with photography and sculpture. “I need to put them out in the world, see what kind of experience they offer. Because it’s the experience; that is what matters. I don’t work for shows. I don’t make work for shows. I just work. Sometimes, an opportunity comes along in a timely way and it works out, like for Hauser & Wirth now. But generally I just focus on what’s necessary to me.”

Roni Horn, Gold Mats, Paired – for Ross and Felix, 1994/2021 (Photo: Roni Horn Studio)

Which brings us to a gallery experience like no other, Gold Mats, Paired – for Ross and Felix, 1994/2021, also on view at HEM. A work that is dedicated to her late friend and artist Félix González-Torres and his partner Ross Laycock, experiencing it for the first time causes viewers to weep. Not just because of its associations between the two, but because of its beguiling, kinetic, luminous visual splendour. The sheer life-force and energy. A shrine. “Most people don’t realise how specific and special this element [gold] is, its physical properties. The idea was to use a highly purified gold foil, to make the mat out of this foil, 5-foot by 6-foot square. When I first did it in 1982, I folded it and discovered this splendour. Up to that point, I didn’t understand the relationship of splendour to gold. That was a revelation. I did not know what I was getting into, so once I was in it, it was an incredibly meaningful experience for me, the quality of that light.” 

I tell her it’s a paradoxical shrine to everything. “I don’t see it so much as a shrine but more from a purely experiential way. It’s bringing you something you’ve probably never seen before. It’s something that’s hidden to us in the world. This is a somewhat larger version. The same concept, produced recently, so I wouldn’t call it a new work, but it’s recent.” And couldn’t be more visibly Roni Horn, right? 

Source: Prestige Online

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