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Roni Horn aka Roni Horn rewarded patient, introspective viewers with a revelatory experience. Organized by curators Donna De Salvo and Carter E. Foster (of the Whitney Museum of American Art) and Mark Godfrey (of the Tate Modern), this mid-career retrospective compiled three decades of the artist’s quietly enigmatic and provocative photographs, sculptures, drawings, and books. The greatest strength of the exhibition’s recent incarnation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA), was the rich dialogue developed between the artwork and its site, the ICA’s magnificent waterfront location. The most challenging aspect of the ICA installation was the relative lack of textual interpretation of Horn’s deliberately obscure artwork. The goal of Horn and the curators was for visitors to construct their own interpretation of the work by forming new relationships with familiar objects.
The visitor’s first encounter with Roni Horn (b. 1955) occurred immediately upon entering the ICA’s lofty, minimalist lobby, where aka (2008–2009), the series of photographs from which the exhibition is named, was displayed. In aka, paired snapshots of the artist from youth through adulthood immediately signaled several of the show’s main themes: the exhibition explored shifting identities, androgyny, self-invention, and the concepts of pairing, twinning, and doubling. Viewers examined the paired photographs to discern similarities and differences. All images portray the artist, yet while some depict a child or adolescent, others reveal an adult. Several photographs reveal a feminine figure with flowing hair and delicate jewelry, while others depict Horn with short hair wearing masculine attire. Some snapshots are mocking and playful; others are serious or sentimental. The pairs confuse assumptions about the artist’s age, personality, and gender by presenting her as a chameleon. With closely-cropped compositions, like mug-shots, the photographs suggest that identity can be flexible and mutable. aka, like the exhibition’s title, Roni Horn aka Roni Horn, indicates that while Horn’s artwork is largely autobiographical, viewers should be aware that the artist constantly reinvents both her own persona and her works’ aesthetic.
The tightly edited exhibition on the ICA’s fourth floor appeared visually alluring but theoretically confusing due to the paucity of textual interpretation and the lack of an audio guide. At the artist’s insistence, wall text was limited to one panel at the exhibition’s entrance, which advised viewers to bring their own meanings to the work (the text explained that Horn’s objects carry multiple meanings that are dependent on each visitor’s unique experiences and perceptions). Thankfully, in order to comply with Horn’s wishes that the gallery walls remain free from text, but to offer viewers more insight into the artist’s biography and intentions, ICA educators placed seven small information cards in liminal spaces throughout the exhibit (they were displayed on the walls between, not in, the galleries). These collectible cards illuminate key works and prompt viewers to consider overarching themes that permeate Horn’s oeuvre, including water, poetry (especially the terse words of Emily Dickinson), identity, place (chiefly Iceland, a highly influential location and second home for Horn), and doubling.
The first three galleries introduced Horn’s photography; in each room, a series of paired photographs prompted viewers to look closely and search for similarities and differences among the nearly identical prints. You are the Weather (1994–95) is an arresting, seductive sequence of black-and-white and color photographs of a young girl. The photographs wrapped around the gallery walls and met viewers at eye-level; the model’s closely-cropped face, dripping wet and emerging from a misty pool (a hot spring in Iceland), beseeched viewers to stare into her knowing-yet-questioning eyes. Entranced, the viewer becomes one with the artwork, just as the model becomes part of the watery, steamy landscape around her. The interpolative pronoun “you” (a common thread in Horn’s titles) invites viewers into an intimate relationship with the images. In the next series, bird (1998/2008), paired images of bird heads facing away from the camera provoke viewers to compare their feathers, markings, colors, and shapes. Most pairs seem to depict almost identical birds, forcing viewers to question their species and gender. Facing away, the anonymous twinned bird heads are transformed from scientific specimens into mysterious phallic-shaped objects, and viewers are free to stare and scrutinize their finely rendered details. Again, Horn prompts viewers to look closely and carefully; this act of comparative looking brought humor and levity to the exhibition, as viewers played the game of “what’s different in this picture?” remembered from childhood.
While Horn’s photographs often prompt an immediate and intimate relationship with the viewer, her sculpture, laden with the influence of Minimalism and Conceptualism, is more difficult to interpret. (In particular, Horn had a close relationship with Donald Judd, who was an early collector of her work). The exhibition’s fourth room contained several long rectangular aluminum rods inscribed with white lettering which leaned haphazardly against the gallery walls. Written onto the tall sculptures, which comprise a series Horn calls White Dickinsons, are excerpts from Emily Dickinson’s poetry, such as ALWAYS BEGINS BY DEGREES (2006–07) or FAITH IS DOUBT (2006–07). These fragmented phrases seem incomplete as both poetry and object; the sculptural rods appear as if they could be extended infinitely taller, and the somewhat nonsensical text begs to be completed by the viewer. The gallery of White Dickinsons was spare and challenging, and most visitors hurried through it on their way toward more of Horn’s engaging photographs and her large, colorful drawings.
In the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, art historian Briony Fer’s essay claims that drawing is, significantly, at the core of Horn’s artistic process. A large gallery at the center of Roni Horn aka Roni Horn displayed a number of her large-scale drawing-collages. The drawings resemble maps, in which a single-colored scrawling line snakes across the composition in broken spirals. The colored lines are interrupted by straight lines, faint pencil marks, enigmatic numbers, and paired words. Closer inspection reveals cuts and seams in the paper—these drawings have been composed as a collage of smaller parts. An educational card revealed, “To make the drawings shown in this exhibition, she draws two to four similar images with powdered pigment, charcoal, and varnish. She cuts these apart and splices them back together into one drawing by matching pairs of words or numbers written at the edges of each piece.” Visitors learned that the registration marks and smudges on each separate piece are the key to fitting the large drawing together. Horn’s process of fragmenting, pairing, separating, and reconnecting images alludes to the larger themes of mutable identities and shape-shifting found in all her work.
The exhibition’s light-flooded northern galleries paired the artwork on the walls (and the sculptures on the floor) with sweeping views of Boston harbor. Here, art and nature collided and coexisted, and Horn’s artwork became viscerally moving and emotionally poetic. Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) (1999) is a series of fifteen lithographs each depicting a different close-up view of churning water. The images are pure liquid, and the lack of shore or horizon contributes to a sense of being lost at sea. Numbers printed faintly on top of the lithographs are paired with footnotes at the bottom of each piece, in which Horn’s text muses on the mutable, flexible, shifting properties of water. Reading the footnotes, we learn that “water is sexy,” “water is a mirror,” and water is “serene,” “disturbed,” and “heavy,” among many other properties. The copious footnotes under each aqueous image simultaneously confirm and upset expectations, and they contribute to an understanding that all of nature, including ourselves, is in flux. Each viewer’s experience of this series was different, depending on the circumstances of the atmosphere, light, and weather outside the museum. Seen through the windows, Boston’s seascape intermingled with Horn’s art, and viewers felt their bodies enveloped by the changing moods and meanings of water. Water—fluid, flexible, and ever-changing—becomes a metaphor for identity, life, and art.
The publication accompanying the exhibition is, not surprisingly, a pair of two books. The first volume is a straightforward catalogue, containing an introduction by the curators, Fer’s essay on Horn’s drawing, color plates, and an exhibition checklist. The second volume, or “Subject Index,” compiles writings by Horn with entries by other artists, critics, and curators, thereby offering keys and cues toward understanding the works. This book contains definitions of words, places, artworks, and themes from Horn’s life and work. Throughout Horn’s career, artist books have been an integral aspect of her creative process, and this largely autobiographical alphabetical glossary is another work in the show. The entries are often convoluted and confusing, and they obscure the artworks’ meanings as much as they illuminate them. Several terms have multiple entries (there are seven definitions for Iceland, eight for desert, and nine for water), and many entries simply refer back to another entry. The slick two-volume catalogue, like the exhibition itself, is simultaneously beautiful and enlightening, yet opaque and frustrating. Roni Horn aka Roni Horn may have left some viewers wanting more, while promising that they will never sufficiently permeate the depths of the artist’s identity, or their own.
Holly Markovitz Goldstein
Professor, Department of Art History, Savannah College of Art and Design
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