Roni Horn: Becoming the Weather
By Adrian Searle
Published: May 13, 2007REYKJAVIK, Iceland (Modern Painters)—Even in the city you could tell the weather was wrong, the seasons out of kilter; spring blooms in November, frogs clumsy with spawn before Christmas, birdsong too insistent for February. There were signs and portents everywhere. But the temperature was dropping when I left London in mid-March, plummeting as I took off for Iceland, where, famously, there is less a climate than continually sampled instances of weather—glorious sun one minute, a howling gale the next, snow then hail then sun again. Total night or no night, depending on the time of year.
The sudden jolts and lurching barometer probably tell us less than those deceptively flat periods of unexpected, lulling mildness that just arrive one day and stay. What if it were always like that? What would an absence of weather tell us? “Weather,” observes Roni Horn, “is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring systemwide.” There was snow on my arrival. The edges of lakes were caked in a messy slop of broken ice and twice-frozen slush; the spate rivers porridgy and swollen with snowmelt; the sea troubled, definitely troubled. There were places along the drive north from Reykjavík where it was impossible to tell where the ridges and troughs of the lava fields ended and the waves began, or exactly where the arc of the ocean and the flat-skied brightness met. The air sometimes so clear it was hard to tell if the vanishing point was inches away or miles.
Once or twice I thought I caught a glimpse of the cone of Snæfell, the dormant volcano inside whose crater Jules Verne imagined a pathway descending to the center of the earth. The conical peak, uncoupled from the horizon, was as distant and tantalizing as Mount Fuji, as though it were hovering somewhere above the farther rim of the Arctic Circle. And then it was gone.
Horn once said that she comes to this high-latitude mid-Atlantic island “to get at the very center of the world,” echoing both Verne and the poet Emily Dickinson, who, Horn noted, “stayed home to get at the world.” Home, for Horn, is an island like this. She has been coming here regularly, back and forth from New York, for more than 30 years. Her visits began in a desire for solitude and distance, space, an urge to measure herself against something new. In the early years she traveled with a motorbike and a tent. As much as wanting an encounter with nature and wildness, she wanted an encounter with herself. Iceland became both her studio and her material, backdrop and foreground, means and subject. It is as elemental a place as I have ever been.
Passing through the small town of Stykkishólmur in the early 1990s, Horn noticed a building standing at the end of a bluff. It was then the local library, and had been built during the 1950s. Horn has described it as looking like “an art deco gas station.” It was built too late to be that, but with its jaunty angles, slanting roof, and rounded prow with wraparound windows overlooking the harbor and the sea beyond, it brings to mind both a ship’s bridge and a solarium. The structure doesn’t so much sit on the rock as ride through the days, turning into the weather. Its position also reminded Horn of a lighthouse, perched above the harbor, and from which one could survey the enormous expanse of Breiðafjörður, its northern horizon gnawed by the highlands and peaks of the Western Fjords, fingering up toward the Arctic.
Perfectly placed and oriented, the building is what the Spanish would call a mirador, a secluded, sequestered place in which to linger, and from which to gaze out and contemplate the panorama of the world beyond, and (perhaps more importantly) to sink into oneself, in the awareness that one is perched somewhere near the end of the world, with the irregular, complicated coastline winding out of sight like a rambling, unfinished sentence, and the fjord punctuated by islands with names as abrupt and cursory as the islands themselves: Flatey, Brokey, Arney, Skaley, with the far cliffs and table mountains on the northern horizon, the town below at the foot of the bluff.
It is in this former library (a new, larger library with easier access has been erected below) that Horn is installing Vatnasafn/Library of Water. The given of the building, its aspect and position, are almost enough, and Horn is returning to the town something that has been here for years, but has mostly gone unnoticed.
Perfect, plain, identical floor-to-ceiling clear glass columns stand about the largest room, crowding near the entrance. The columns are filled with water. Some stand apart, others cluster to form a loose, convivial group. Moving between and among the columns, one thinks of a grove and of people—especially when Horn slips her arm round a column and leans against it, giving it an affectionate embrace. Momentarily, I am nervous. These things weigh tons, and only a few of the columns are properly fixed in place yet. Each is filled with around 50 gallons of water, melted and collected from Iceland’s glaciers—Vatnajökull, Hofsjökull, Drangajökull, Snæfellsjökull, which is on the slopes of the mountain I caught a distant glimpse of earlier and where we intend to drive tomorrow.
As it is, we stay in the library from late afternoon light to total dark, watching the light fade, which, in Iceland at this stage of year, already takes a long time. Every day is a dial slowly turned, and each perceptively longer than the last. Tomorrow, I realize, is the equinox, when day and night are of equal length. This is the tipping point, after which the days will begin to slide together toward the day-lit nights of the summer solstice, the sun barely dipping into the horizon.
We sit on the floor, in a clearing among the incomplete stand of columns. Each column reflects and refracts the light, presenting an elongated, distorted image of what lies beyond it. Looking through the water-filled column nearest the window, it seems to magnify the horizon, drawing the world into it. Virtual images and reflections slide over the surfaces of the columns and are held captive in them. The effect is unexpectedly complex, and more than a perceptual game of the sort I generally get impatient with. This place slows you down.
The water also clarifies the view and, like Iceland’s air, acts as a lens of peculiarly austere and steely brilliance. Things appear more clearly, more focused and crisp than the reality beyond the window, which the fading daylight is beginning to soften. This sharpness is contrasted by the warmth of the room itself and the muffled acoustics, damped down by the thick, rubbery floor beneath our feet.
The only internal illumination is provided by spotlights recessed into the ceiling above each column. The light fills the glass. The water from some glaciers is gin-clear, rendering their columns so absolute in their clarity they might just as well contain a vacuum. Others are glaucous or milky, others turbid with dissolved volcanic minerals and ash, clay, and pumice. Slowly the suspended particles are separating out and sinking to form thin strata at the bottom of the glass. Some of these glaciers, Horn tells me, are melting so fast now that they may not be with us in a decade, “but this is only accidentally about the endgame.” It is difficult not to take the passing of the natural world personally, equally hard not to feel impotent in the face of it. Horn, I think, wants to avoid the obviousness of art as ecological protest.
She has lengthened the original windows almost to the floor, providing a sweeping view of the town below: the little streets and houses, the concrete church with its extravagantly arching and decorative buttresses whose design might once have seemed futuristic but is now as quaint as an alien spaceship in a 1950s sci-fi story. Fantasies of the future inevitably come to tell us something about the past and almost nothing about the present. [read on...]