roni horn

This interview was held in Basel in June, 1995 shortly after the opening of the two exhibitions at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst and at the Kunsthalle. Whereas the show in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst concentrated on works on paper, in the Kunsthalle show, titled Making Being Here Enough, samples of all the different aspects of the work of Roni Horn were presented.

Claudia Spinelli: Your work has many different aspects. While some works seem to concentrate on problems of material, form, and space, others are based on language or literature. Installations stand next to works on paper (pigment-drawings) and books with photographs and texts of your own. Where does this wish to work with so many different media stem from and what is their inner connection?

Roni Horn: It's a big question and it's hard to answer precisely. The closest I can come is to speak about growing up androgynous. It started with my name which is not male or female. It seems to me, retrospectively, that my entire identity formed around this, around not being this or that: a man or a woman. I don't fit in with these kinds of singular identities. Perhaps that's a basis for having the option to work with so many different idioms. The work has a way of developing in a manner that never allows the viewer to become too familiar with it or to make assumptions about it. In subverting expectations you increase the chance of offering a more direct experience; not one that simply fulfills the viewers' desires or confirms their knowledge. It's more of a questioning. I'm not interested in answers per se. The answers create closure. I don't think that there are any answers anyway, they are always provisional. I think that's part of it.

Spinelli: To oppose the process of becoming familiar. Does the same go for you as for your audience?

Horn: Yes. Particularly as an artist — it's uncertainty that allows for possibility. Presumably it's part of the process of creating. This is by nature an irreversible growth process — a dialogue that opens things up instead of closing them down. I can't imagine doing something the content of which I know in a predetermined way. For example, the book and final version of Verne's Journey (I did two shortened versions, one for Mönchengladbach and one for Parkett): I knew only with the book that I wanted to reveal the fiction of Jules Verne's book Journey to the Center of the Earth as the reality it is. Up to that point I was working with an intuition about the paradox of fiction. In the book the opening shot is an aerial photograph of the glacier which covers the entrance to the center of the earth. I zoomed in on the ice and cut to ground-level. At ground level you see all of these extraordinary geologic events. Now these are all things that just happen as a part of the mundane in Iceland. Verne's fiction is not a fiction at all. What he described, the entrance, the journey and I estimate the center of the earth as well, actually exists. But he was never in Iceland. So for him it was pure fiction. Verne's Journey ends at the center of the earth; the sequence imaging the center goes from a foggy, horizonless ocean to a calm sea and finally to the Maelstrom, which is at the absolute center of the earth. But then I go into the Maelstrom zooming in until it becomes essentially ink on paper. And that's what it is, because the image breaks down into this exceptionally mundane reality. It manifests the persistence of the mundane and the tangible. At the outset, and when I did the work for Parkett, I didn't have that conclusion. It came to me after sitting with the piece for a few years. The book can be read as a parallel for the human condition and humanity's relationship to the planet. It's a metaphor for the power of the mundane and the manner in which it levels things.
To me Verne's Journey is also an allegory of historical development. Humanity suffers from too much tolerance especially in regard to the decline of global quality of life. Specifically I am referring to the increasing difficulty of getting clean shared resources such as air and water. People aren't really dealing with this, people are just saying "Oh, yes, I'm sick" and they are not making that connection. Cancer in addition to being a disease is a metaphor for all of those things you cannot see but which affect you deeply. It's also a metaphor for passivity. So in a way there is something of that in this book too. And it exists throughout my work generally. There is always the experience that what you cannot see deeply affects what you can see. Like the fact that these pieces, for example, in Pair Field are solid. This is a pretty simple thing, but those little objects have a certain and very specific presence. Presence occurs when a thing is what it appears to be. They are not images. So I have a certain way of working that is concerned — not with the invisible, but with the nonvisible; meaning it's there and you can sense it. The nonvisible is confluent with the visible, it's the bigger part of the sensible.

Spinelli: So that is what you want, making things transparent, showing what is underneath the surface?

Horn: I want to make sensible experience more present. People have much more knowledge than they realize. I try to reach the viewer by addressing the bodily and not just the mental/nonphysical being. The viewer must take responsibility for being there, otherwise there is nothing there. Making Being Here Enough is just that. I don't mean it in the sense of dismissing the past and the future, but in taking what is here/now actively. It's like you're eating it. You are taking it in.

Spinelli: You are a successful artist. A lot of attention is paid to your work and your exhibitions meet a strong public response. What does this mean to you?

Horn: You know, I've been working for twenty years. That's a bit more than half of my life. In the catalogue of the shows in Basel and Hannover there are pieces from 1980 and they are pieces that I feel very strongly about conceptually and I have continued to develop them over the last fifteen years. But many of my works were not shown in public until ten years or more after their completion.

Spinelli: Twenty years seems to be quite a long time. How has your work developed or changed? And how about your work process?

Horn: The entrance to all my work is the idea of an encyclopedia of identity. It is best represented by the books, the series called To Place, which is extremely important to me. I have been working on this since 1988. It's really the heart. It is a series of books, each one of which adds to the whole in a way that alters the identity of it retroactively. So the first volume appears to be a book of drawings. The second book was about a completely different subject but in the same format. With the third volume people start to realize something: "Well, this looks like a series, so there must be some relationship. But I haven't a clue as to what it is." Then there was the forth volume, with texts and photographs. The books are this very slow process of accumulation in the period of a life, my life. And now there is the fifth volume and again a completely different focus. The underlying subject stays the same: Iceland and myself, the viewer and the view. This is the dialectic that defines each in itself.

Spinelli: Compared to your installations, looking at and reading books is a very private way of confrontation...

Horn: It's very intimate. A book is really a sensual, if not sexual experience and I use these books to focus people in this very intimate one-on-one relationship. The book can become a kind of mirror. The book has an inside and an outside. (A lot of things don't have that. They have only outsides; images for example.) And then you enter it and it has a fixed sequence. It has a before and an after, there is a narrative implicit in it. So all that is part of the structure that I'm using. I'm working on the sixth volume now which is completely different again. It focuses on one woman, exclusively. It's about the face as place. It's a sequence of very tight head shots. I was photographing Margrét outdoors and in water. The water and the weather became very important as the visual context. Water and weather are dominant phenomena in Iceland. So we would travel and I would photograph her in the water and in the weather. It was a very simple relationship: I didn't tell her to do anything, she would just get into the water and I would photograph her. In the sunlight and with the clouds under the open, forceful sky — the water was all around her, on her, and in her hair, and in the air as well.
In Iceland a lot of the scenes of water are also major tourist attractions. So I started to photograph the tourists with the water just because they were there. This is potentially another dialogue, perhaps another volume. The presence of tourists interests me as a view of the viewer and the view. It also interests me as a foreign element in the landscape like litter. It's the shifting of positions. It's a theme that pervades the work anyway. Here the view is entrance. But if you think of a typical view (as for example Niagara Falls) it's like being slapped in the face, it's like witnessing a murder. But I'm talking about view in the sense of something that is present and that one can interact with. The tourist's relationship to the view is extremely trivial and tenuous usually. They're looking for the scene of the crime. So you see in these photographs the most sensational geology of Iceland and the tourists.

Spinelli: You frequently travel to Iceland. Is Iceland a kind of escape for you?

Horn: No, it's the opposite of an escape. You know, Iceland isn't this pure faraway place. Iceland is this mundane place slowly being altered by the desires of humanity. I've been going there since 1975. In the last ten years it has changed radically. But this isn't something I thought: "Oh, I have got to document this decline."

Spinelli: This transformation, however, must have changed the way of confrontation ...

Horn: But I accept that change. The idea, that you can be dealing with the same thing over time or keep the same thing is strange. You would never buy a car for example and expect that in fifty years it's going to be precisely the same. I don't have that relationship to landscape either. I expect it to change. Of course I am extremely skeptical and critical of humanity and it's relationship to the nonhuman world, but I know in going to Iceland I'm not going there to get away from that. Iceland is really the center of action for me. Since I grew up in New York people think I'm escaping from all it's lunacy. Not at all. When I go to Iceland that's where I get nervous, where I think: "Oh my God, this is intense." I did this drawing An old woman who has passed her life on a small Scottish cliff island is uncomfortable on the mainland because she can not see the edge which states the paradox of my relationship to Iceland. I have the same problem with staying in New York. I'm just too familiar. Iceland is something that is not familiar to me, even after all this time, partly because of what's happening there, but also because it is forever foreign to me. It's much easier to see things when you come from the outside. It's much more of an objective relationship, but it's also like a mirror. It reminds me of the experience of the desert, any desert: ash and ice or heat and sand. When you go into the desert you are who you are. The desert gives you nothing. If you don't have it inside yourself you aren't going to get it from the desert. You know what I mean?

Spinelli: The drawing that you just showed me makes me think of the installation work How Dickinson Stayed Home. In addition to never leaving her home, she didn't have the success she would have deserved. During her lifetime only seven of her poems were published, most of them edited to make them more conventional. She seems to be a victim. Do you identify with her or is she a kind of ideal for you?

Horn: I think for me that is not so important. I don't think of Dickinson as an ideal, she is just somebody out there who did what she needed to do for herself. You know, people say, "Oh, she was a lesbian;" or "She was afraid of men." Whatever we think she was is irrelevant. The reality is, she didn't have to go out into the world and get married or participate to do what she had to do. Somehow she knew that and everything is very clear from that point on. I think her staying home was an active decision. When she looked out the window of her bedroom, she was able to see the whole world. When you read her texts, you know that she was an incredibly worldly person.

Spinelli: So the essential thing is how you look at something and how you do it ?

Horn: Yes, exactly: "How" is it. The only real question is "how". "Why" and "what" are kind of irrelevant when it comes to artistic endeavor. There is that one piece called When the How and the What are the Same which is about this idea of something which centers the world around it. An object that never changes, where action and being, the "how" and the "what" merge. From wherever you view it, it is always the same thing. It's a very subtle piece and I don't know if the photograph really communicates the actual work. When you enter the room you see one sphere that, like every sphere, centers the world around it. But when you walk into the room you see a second sphere and it becomes the competitive relationship of two identical objects, two centers in close proximity. And this all leaves the viewer with a certain disquiet. Just that. Whereas Asphere is a spherical looking object which is distorted out of its sphericity slightly. The distortion is so subtle it is barely visible. So it's not a sphere and it's nothing else. To me it's like an homage to androgyny. Androgyny is the integration of difference as a source of identity. When you combine the one with the other you come towards a synthetic identity, one that is not so nameable. You know, not that kind of mutually exclusive form of identity like gender. Asphere is about androgyny. And the experience gives a little bit of that. Because it is not a sphere and it acquires no other discrete identity. And when you go away, it remains nameless. It is really important that it cannot be fixed. Somebody said it is something that at first seems familiar and as you spend more time with it becomes less and less familiar.

Spinelli: Your work makes one assume that today's gender discussion is not a crucial point of reference for you. Is this correct?

Horn: Well, I think it is of interest, but maybe not in a literal sense. Sexuality and gender are now topical themes. I try to avoid this. It is a reluctance to be named and a wish to stay away from that way of being known. But there is no question that issues of my sexuality and gender are important to the decisions I have made in my work and in the way I conduct myself in the world. I would never deny it, but at the same time I am not interested in being named as a woman, particularly not as a woman artist. The issue of whether or not I am a woman artist is the problem of the questioner — it's not my problem. But who would want to be an adjective. If you can be a noun, be it. Why would you want to be a supplement. To identify the gender of an artist is a way of diluting identity. I'm a very private person. However, from the work itself you can know a lot about me.

Spinelli: Just before you talked about the project in Iceland with Margrét. Wouldn't that be very personal?

Horn: Well I think so, but you will never know what her relationship to me is. You may have a lot of perhaps erotic speculations about it, but that's part of the work. There is definitely an option to read the piece that way.

Spinelli: The structure of your work is very open, meaning that the viewers can have their own ideas about a work or that they build up their own fictions. Do you mind that? And how open do you want your work to be understood?

Horn: I think people just do it. I don't think you can ever get away from a view that isn't half filled with a person's desires. There isn't any work that avoids that. But the work which is called Haraldsdóttir, which is the next book, definitely encourages it. It also exists as a separate and surprisingly different work in the form of a photographic installation called You are the Weather. I shot over 200 rolls of film of Margrét. Over the year I edited it down to 100 photographs and I sorted out all of the photographs where she is not making direct eye contact with viewer/photographer. Because as long as she makes eye contact the relationship between the viewer and the subject is nonhierarchical, as well as non-voyeuristic. You are not looking at Margrét in the traditional sense of nude photography. You are looking at this woman looking at you. The installation will consist of this persistent stare. It's about intimacy, about conjuring this intimacy but remaining anonymous. She never reveals her identity. What you get instead is a collection of identities. You see her face one hundred times to be precise, but she never appears as the same woman. Even though she has been photographed the same way, even though there was no makeup and no direction, each sequence is extremely different. Because of her relationship to the weather, the light, the wind, or whatever was going on — she takes on this broad range of personalities. In producing this work I became aware of the fact that you are the weather. Clearly the weather is one thing that exerts a constant influence on you. Reciprocally, we have finally reached the point in history where humanity has an equally pervasive effect on the weather. So in this manner the weather and humanity begin to spiral together.

Spinelli: So, essentially this is about the way identity is being constructed. Do you consider it an interaction or a dialogue between a self and the surroundings or is it the outside that is taking over?

Horn: I think it's both. For those of us who like to think we are taking responsibility, it's probably a dialogue. For those of us who are just living their lives in a very passive way, it's an inner action in which we partake passively. I think that tends to be the majority of people. I referred to cancer as being a metaphor for the nonvisible part of the world and that passivity plays a big roll in it. I sense this enormous passivity. It's suffocating everything that has life in it.

Spinelli: To say that you are a moralist is probably exaggerated. But what about the moral intention in your work?

Horn: It has a morality. I don't know if it has moral intention. I'm opening up these questions but I'm not dictating a response. I think it's essential in any kind of creative production that you do not forsake who you are.

Spinelli: One last question: Is Roni your original first name?

Horn: Yes, it is my original name and my destiny.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.