Collier Schorr: For the last 20 years you've been visiting Iceland to work on To Place, a series of books which you have called an 'Encyclopaedia'. What does it mean to make an Encyclopaedia?
Roni Horn: Originally I thought I would model the series after Plato's Dialogues, but then I thought that would be a bit much. After completing the sixth volume, I felt more comfortable with the term 'encyclopaedia', which was intended in its most literal sense, as a collection of knowledge. I titled the work To Place because I think of Iceland as a verb rather than a noun, in the sense of an active thing, be it geographically, meteorologically, historically, experientially and so on. Each volume is a dialogue between Iceland and myself, the view and the viewer; I see the series structure as a metaphor for the fluidity of identity, since each book alters the meaning of the previous ones.
The most recent volume, Haraldsdóttir (1996), is comprised of 61 almost identical headshots of a young women who looks like she's just about to leave the water. She's wet and never gets wetter, she's almost dry, but not quite. It's like a flip book of someone running on the spot. You've used similar images of the same woman in You are the Weather (1995), an installation that wrapped around a room. Why these images and how does the work change from book to wall?
I went over to Iceland knowing what l wanted, but not knowing what it looked like. It had something to do with this woman I had met, something about her face communicating an idea of place. I photographed her in water all over Iceland. In You are the Weather I wanted to establish an equivalence between my position as photographer, the position of the subject, and that of the eventual viewer. I edited out all of the material where she was looking off camera. It's in those moments where she becomes an object and in turn where a hierarchical relationship is established with the viewer.
One has immediate access to the fantasy of her lapping over you.
One of the issues at work in the installation is the paradox of its simultaneous intimacy and anonymity. The photographs have an erotic edge, but no matter how much time you spend with her you will never get any closer to her. She changes and she expresses different personalities - if you isolate out the different sequences, she looks first like a hockey player, then a pouty sexy standard; she's a multitude of things. Those changes, that range of emotion - she looks like she's irritated, like she's angry - were in fact provoked by the weather. It's the sun in her eyes, it's snowing, it's windy. When you are in the room with her it's as though you've provoked those responses, you become the weather. For me, this work is deeply erotic in a genderless way.
On the other hand, in the book you have a hierarchical relationship with her. You hold her in your hands, you manipulate the view, and she comes to you like waves to the shore.
You've mentioned the disappearance of gender before.
I have always felt androgyny as central to my relationship with both myself and the work. As far as an individual's experience of a given work goes, I throw the issue of self-identity back out to the viewer. This is especially true of You are the Weather, since the backgrounding of my gender invites another range of questioning and exercise of imagination. In the installation, you're in the round. Unlike the book it does not provide a beginning, middle and end. The installation begins anywhere and ends there as well. Its duration is your endurance. I have always thought that the viewer walks into the room and performs the work, although I don't think of my works as particularly theatrical. The more theatrical a work is the more it tends to pacify the viewer. I want the viewer to take an active role.
It's the difference between watching and participating in the unravelling of an idea.
Exactly, even with the Gold Field (1980-82). I knew when I first made that piece people would talk about how sensational it was. But it's one thing to chose a material that's sensational in itself - as gold is - and it's another to take something ordinary and turn it into something sensational. Conceptually these are two completely different ideas. I was interested in the fact that an individual's experience of gold is never separate from the cultural perception of it. Too much is riding on it, both economically and mythologically. Few of us have had the experience of gold as a simple physical reality, which is what Gold Field gave you, spread out there on the floor.
When we looked at Gold Mats, Paired (for Ross and Felix) (1994-95) in your studio, you spoke about how you finally understood the appeal of gold. We also talked about your father who was a pawnbroker, a particularly charged occupation. Your family's income was directly related to the trade and sale of that material.
The pawnshop thing definitely got me into gold at an early age. But the interesting point was not that gold was this very special material, but that it actually seemed like any other not-so-special material. I became fascinated with why gold was the source of so much mythology and attention.
When I first made the Gold Field and saw it laid out on the floor, I was a little shocked by it. Because it really seemed just this side of nothing. Something like a doormat; in one sense another version of Duchamp's Breeding Dust (1920) - a simple levelling of value. But then I started to fold the mat and noticed this outrageous, deep, deep, erotic orange light emanating from the folds. That was how I discovered the splendour of gold. But I wasn't really happy that I had to fold the gold to get the light, it felt too didactic. So I left it as this four by five foot Gold Field, on the floor. It was very plain, but loaded with all these interesting ideas. 13 years later, after a lot of work with pairing, I met Felix, who loved the Gold Field. In Gold Mats, Paired (For Ross and Felix), one mat is placed on top of another. From between them, firelight glows. It peeps and seeps out from the edges. The light is the gold reflecting off itself. Here is the metaphor for intimacy. Here is the eroticism, the splendour and mythology of gold. As H.D. Thoreau wrote, 'I want a closer relation to the sun.'
For me gold is awash in sentimentality. Your work has a complicated relationship to its emotional content; the way it avoids the sentimental creates a compelling tension.
My instinct is that maybe the piece would never have existed without Felix and that's why I named it the way I did. I don't know about sentimentality but perhaps sentiment. There is very little irony in my work, but there is a lot of paradox. The logic in my work tends to be developed out of experiential as opposed to primarily visual concerns. This is a small distinction but that order of value helps me to exclude all affect from the work. There are no gratuitous gestures. There is no distinction drawn between appearance and reality. I try to keep them confluent.
Your work operates as a continuation of some of the formal arguments of Minimalism - notably, the sculpture as space - but also on a level that would have to be seen as adversarial to Minimalism's rejection of illusionism and metaphor. What does it mean to recall the objects of Minimalism and does a borrowing of form necessarily signal subversion?
There is no question that my work relates profoundly to the experience of Minimalism, but I think that its focus lies elsewhere. I'm not afraid to flirt with the look of Minimalism. Metaphor is an interesting thing, though. As much as one might work against metaphor, to try and develop a form or a work that is not like anything else, one finds this isn't possible. People will bring metaphor to a work as a way of relating to it. There is a lot of metaphor in my work and that is mostly because I put it there.
When you started making Minimal-style objects were you thinking about what you were taking and what you weren't?
Yes, certainly. For example, Asphere (1986), a 13" solid steel object that is slightly distorted from sphericity, is especially flirtatious with the Minimalist look, but it is a homage to androgyny. It gives the experience of something initially very familiar, but the more time you spend with it, the less familiar it becomes. I think of it as a self-portrait. Another example would be Limit of the Twilight (1991), an aluminium rod with '49 MILES' cast into it in black plastic lettering. It was inspired by an experience I had as a child. I distinctly remember hearing a radio DJ introducing Thelonious Monk's 'Crepuscule with Nellie', and I've always felt that crepuscule - which means twilight - was a word whose beauty approached that of its meaning - its sound alone suggests the nebulous and immeasurable. 20 years later I was reading a science article and I discovered that twilight has a limit, which is 49 miles. From this came the work, an ultra-mechanical, ultra-quantitative object, but in its presence you witness only the pathos of the measurable.
If you look at the early work and what I'm doing today it's pretty consistent. I would talk about the Gold Field in terms of mythology, in terms of symbolism and metaphor, and that is what allowed me to take that material and lay it out. The resemblance to Minimalism is just that and no more. Essentially, it revealed the physical reality of the symbol. It is Marilyn Monroe's Norma Jean.
Upon first viewing Pair Field (1990-91) I found the work a bit sterile. After some time I began to recognise the pairings and grasped the notion of sameness. Detecting the homosocial landscape was a crucial step in understanding the motivation behind what I had at first seen as a heavy-handed reworking of a sculptural argument. Here you go beyond a simple theatre of perception and into a theatre of identification.
I can easily imagine your initial perception of sterility. The work is comprised of two identical groups of 18 objects; each group is placed in a separate room of different dimensions and arranged to produce different interrelationships. It's like a passage in The Last of The Mohicans (1826) which compared the experience of walking through a field with that of walking through a forest, describing the way each experience gives you a different sense of yourself.
The dryness of the look is largely to do with the idea of having two identical things, which necessitated the use of machine technology. If you want something identical, you can't make it by hand, it's just not credible. In terms of its appearance, the nature of the objects themselves, I needed to develop a collection of completely different forms that were clearly related to the other members of the group - I needed a strong sense of cohesion to hold the 18 unique objects together as one thing. That paradox, of difference and identity needed to be contained in that group. And then I compounded it by duplicating the group while changing their interrelation. Finally, you have two identical things with different identities.
That piece recalls Allan McCollum's Individual Works (1988), where he displayed a multitude of objects that were all slight variations on each other. Here was a completely heterosexual reproductive impulse couched in an ironic production.
I instinctively understood the development of the Pair form, with which I began working in 1980, as profoundly (although not exclusively) related to both my sexuality and androgyny. But to really talk about the Pairs you have to go back to Piece For Two Rooms(1986-87). In this work two identical objects are each placed in separate rooms. The viewer goes from one room to the other, finding in the first room a unique object, but in the second, a familiar experience - because it is the experience of an identical thing. So you go from the experience of something that is completely unique to the experience of it as reductive. And of course the idea of the identical is a paradox since you always have a here and a there, a now and a then. These distinctions go to the foundation of identity.
It also strikes me that with Pair Field, you made a very political piece in a masked form, at a time when artists like Kruger and Holzer were making such literal works.
While my work clearly has political and social content, it is, as you point out, camouflaged - anyway it certainly isn't explicit. But I always thought of Kruger as a very ambitious artist. Not so much in terms of the artefacts produced or the gallery shows, but in terms of her extension: the fact that she consistently sought to broaden the context, distribution and reach of her work. I also felt strongly about the very early Holzer work, but generally the content of this work cannot withstand a more material or object-oriented approach without some compromise of its meaning. I think this is evident in the later work. Work with explicit political content tends to suffer in direct proportion to the permanence of form employed. Work dominated by political and social issues must bear in its form the ephemeral nature of its content. It must risk disappearance.
In your work there is a desire to link drawings to sculpture to photography: to make the smokestacks of an Icelandic factory resonate in a cylindrical form or locate a land mass in a drawing. I'm actually more interested in what I see as an antagonistic relationship between the forms.
I agree. I find the edginess of their relationships much more interesting. People naturally tend to relate the work by appearance, to find visual or stylistic similarities. But these don't interest me. It's more the conceptual development shared by all the forms that I am thinking about. I go to the idiom and material that suits the conceptual needs of a given work, which may lead to disparate appearances in the various bodies of work. It's too simplistic to think that in order for things to have meaningful relationships they have to have some visible similarity. Clearly this is one vast shortcoming in so many art historical and critical viewpoints. I think the relationship among the different bodies of work is not supplementary - it's complimentary. My Distant Doubles (1988-90) drawings - two very similar drawings hung in separate rooms - are a kind of advertisement of that reiteration. They provide a moment of recognition that's not at all unlike Piece For Two Rooms. The sensibilities are consistent between the different bodies of work, and the parallel between them comes, I believe, from my androgyny. It gave me the view that I could open up without compromising my identity as an artist - in fact, I think it makes my identity more singular.
Some of your landscapes of Iceland could fit effortlessly into the Düsseldorf School, but their Germanic appearance seems antithetical to your Icelandic experience. Again we see a cool veneer, as with some of the objects, which here is informed by a seductive and sentimental desire to get lost. My vision of Iceland is that you are the only one there.
Yes, if you were to isolate out some of the photographs and present them as individual works, it's possible to see a relationship with that school. But I don't do that. The images in Folds (1991) were intended to exist exclusively within the context of the Encyclopaedia. I was really thinking of this unique indigenous structure as one element in a much larger whole.
I don't know if I agree with the 'sentimental desire to get lost.' One of the reasons Iceland is so compelling for me is that I am less encumbered by questionable social restraints. I am out there, mostly alone in very isolated places. I have the sense that I am more profoundly in the world there than anywhere else. I don't think I'm getting away from something so much as I'm getting into something. I did a text drawing in 1984 which sums it up. 'An old woman who passed her life on a small Scottish cliff island is uncomfortable on the mainland because she cannot see the edge.' I go to Iceland because I can't see the edge.
You have done a lot of work with the weather and you are currently working on a commission for a weather station in Germany. How does your work change when you have to focus on the context?
I approach these commissions in the same manner as my other work only the concept is moulded somewhat by an understanding of the use and meaning of the site. l like to think of the concepts as portable, that is, as inspired by the site, but not necessarily site-specific.
The work I am installing now, You are the Weather, Munich (1993-96) is a permanent installation for the Meteorological Bureau of Munich. The heart of the work is a collection of adjectives that are frequently used to describe both humanity and the weather: 'bad', 'good', 'cool', 'hot', 'torrid', 'frigid', and 'balmy', for example. Much to my amusement I found the dominant themes in the collection of adjectives to be moral and sexual ones. This fit nicely with Freud's statement that talking about the weather is talking about oneself. The installation developed in two parts. The first consisting of two soft rubber mats - one located outside at the entrance to the building and the other inside, at the exit. Embedded in this black rubber are the adjectives. Once inside the building the words travel via a set of handrails through the three story atrium up into the five story instrument tower and finally to the rooftop where the weather is actually measured. The adjectives in their ubiquity are a metaphor for the weather, just as the slow drag of the soft rubber at the entrance and exit enact this metaphor by briefly altering your bodily relation to the planet and its gravity.
You're also making a piece for a public space in Switzerland, where your work will actually affect the physical being of those that come into contact with it.
Untitled (Interior Landscape) (1996-)is a 600 foot walkway developed for a site in Basel. The work is a rubber flooring, which, as the pedestrian walks along, becomes substantially harder or softer while offering no visual confirmation of that change. The unchanging visible aspect of the work and the changing tactile aspect places its perception entirely within the mind and body of the pedestrian - another kind of path. Maybe I will call it 'Yous in You'.
First published in Issue 32