Roni Horn, You are the Weather, 1994-1995
Thirty-six gelatin silver prints and sixty-four chromogenic prints, 10.5 x 8.5 inches each
Copyright Roni Horn
Roni Horn aka Roni Horn
The Whitney Museum
945 Madison Ave
New York, NY
November 6, 2009 through January 24, 2010
In a conversation held late last winter between multimedia artist Roni Horn and the Whitney Museum’s curator Donna De Salvo (arranged in conjunction with the Whitney’s mid-career survey, Roni Horn aka Roni Horn), Horn herself proved to be something of a surprise. Within the first fifteen minutes of the discussion, she had provocatively asserted that she is not a photographer—a curious statement for an artist who is known by many for her photographic works alone. Like interpreting a novelist’s use of the word “I” too literally, or judging character from the voice of a familiar radio host, we sometimes mistake artworks as being metaphorical depictions of the artist herself. While De Salvo introduced Horn’s work as stemming from, and adding to, the “language of minimalism,” this feels like a better description of the artist herself. Horn, middle-aged with short gray hair, quiet until she gains momentum, uses language minimally and purposefully, like an artistic material. “My relationship to my work is extremely verbal,” Horn says. The conversation between artist and curator was therefore an entertaining tête-à-tête to witness, as Horn answered questions bluntly and cut through De Salvo’s questions with a dry, playful sense of humor. When asked, “where did you grow up?” Horn quipped back, “which time?” Her lack of affect matches her artwork’s solid and investigative aesthetic. “I’m not thinking of perfection or imperfection,” Horn says, “it needs to be what it is. Perfection is relative.” The exhibition Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, a sparse, non-chronological show of sculptures, drawings, and photographs, evokes a different image of the artist than the non-photographer we met during the discussion. Though Horn’s disclaimer was an understandable attempt to distance herself from any one disciplinary label, it is this wary and removed approach that makes her numerous photographic projects her most arresting artworks.
Elaborating on her declaration, Horn continues, “a photograph is image, not material…[the] photographic works come out of the language of sculpture and drawing, [from] a non-photographic language.” Horn does treat the subjects of her photographic projects like she might a sculptural material. Her images feel as though they weigh more than a piece of paper, and they convey the depth and dimensionality of something existing in the round. An early work such as Still Water (The River Thames for Example) (1999)—a series of tightly cropped lithographs documenting London’s river—exemplifies Horn’s tendency to imbue her photographs with the density of another medium. Still Water captures the personality of the river’s surface as it personifies our own emotions. The River Thames, like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, is the most popular river for foreign suicides, but the water Horn depicts here is not at all similar to the glistening blueness of the Pacific Ocean. Her images document a cloudy, pond-like, and seemingly bottomless river, where the water’s great appeal is not its refreshing clearness, but its mysterious hopelessness. The water’s surface, never serene, is disrupted by angry ripples and choppy waves, the circular plops of raindrops, or the unappealing bubbles of foam. The water is so oddly opaque that it reveals no depth or life below its surface. Instead it is eerily reflective of the environment above that we do see. Written beneath each image, in columns of book-like text, Horn punctuates this series with her own musings concerning this body of water. She recalls events of lost bodies or unsolved tragedies—“the English have a penchant for dismembering their murder victims,” ruminates on notions of water itself —“Is water sexy? Water is sexy,” and describes what feels like a daily string of quotidian notations—“I can’t be the only one who’s terrified of falling in, of being submerged even for one second in this water.”
Roni Horn, Cabinet of, 2001
36 C-print Photographs
Copyright Roni Horn
Horn argues that not seeing herself as a photographer “allows me to draw upon different forms without having to be identified with them.” If her Still Water series was made outside the language of photography, a later group of portraits, Cabinet of (2001), thirty-six color photographs arranged in an expansive rectangular grid, draw heavily on Horn’s interest in drawing, or more accurately, mark making. Though her drawings often look like rough sketches, these photographs have the texture, subtlety, and palette of painting. Surrounded by and submerged within a rich white background, Cabinet of is the portrait of a clown’s psychology. The powdered face of Horn’s genderless clown, with its gaping red mouth and bulbous nose, contorts for our amusement or disquiet like a child in front of a mirror or a stage performer warming up. Though clowns innately present us with a kind of falsehood, Horn’s images only amplify her clown’s ambiguity. Each photograph captures the clown’s countenance with long exposures turning a distinct subject into a blurry composite of expressions. Like a Bruce Nauman video, there is a kind of jest, a playful sense of the absurd in these photographs, behind which lurks a darker and more disturbing concern for the authenticity of character. The painterly quality of the photographs, reminiscent of photo-realistic painters like Gerhard Richter, gives them an iconic sensibility, as though studying this clown might reveal some deep cultural truth concerning the symbolic. From a distance the series reads as a liner narrative, humorous portraits shot in beautiful abstraction, but up close the photographs lose their form and become simply bloody swirls of animated color. The title, Cabinet of, suggests a cabinet of wonder or curiosity, and there is a desire within all thirty-six images to decode or expose an icon of the fantastic.
Roni Horn, Bird, 2008
Twenty paired photographs, 22 x 22 inches each
Courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth Zurich, London
Copyright Roni Horn
Later in her conversation with De Salvo Horn remarked, “it takes almost nothing to evolve an identity,” and the simplicity of her photographic subjects does leave a great deal of room for a viewer’s own speculation. Like an abstract Rothko or a sparsely written Becket play, it is our participation that completes the work and allows for its meaning. While Horn’s technical employment of photography is traditional (she often draws from the language of large format portraiture) her treatment of the objects within the frame questions these traditions. Bird (1998-2008), twenty photographs exhibited as diptychs, is a perfect example of Horn’s exploration of an object’s photographic identity. Each set shows the detailed portrait of a taxidermal Icelandic wildfowl. The birds are photographed from behind, framed like the bust of a famous statue, with every image showing an individual bird’s head and neck, as well as layers upon layers of downy, colorful feathers. At first glance the photographs appear to be an installation of unrecognizable objects, abstractions dealing with space and shape, foreground and background, positive and negative. Without a face, body, or symbol we can readily identify, it is only the feathers that give away the bird’s identity. As our eyes make out the subject, however, unnoticed characteristics become obvious. You begin see for the first time how specific, like a fingerprint or the pattern on our skin, the feathers on a bird’s neck are. With two almost duplicate images presented side by side, Horn exaggerates each bird’s individuality and each photograph’s singularity, even though many of the birds, and the images themselves, look much the same. In two identical backsides, however, we see two different gestures. Different neck curves or head tilts act as signals of individuality. Though Horn has created an almost empirical document of a country’s wildfowl, predictably photographed against a sterile white background, Bird translates into a distinctly individualized set of portraits.
Roni Horn might find it liberating and convenient to distance herself from labels she finds oppressive, but she is without question a contributor to the contemporary language of photography. Horn does not need to call herself a photographer to continue investigating through the camera, and within the lexicon of her artwork it seems to serve her best that she doesn’t. At times it seems an artist’s transgressions against a medium is what makes them use it so well. Discomfort, and a constant desire to push a project away from being what it is expected to be, is sometimes what makes it most authentically itself. As a wise professor once told me, most good photographers think of themselves as not being photographers at all.
Roni Horn, This is me, This is you, 1999-2000
Ninety-six chromogenic prints, 12.5 x 10.25 inches each
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zurich, London
Copyright Roni Horn
Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.