At the water's edge
Roni Horn By Lynne Cooke et al. Phaidon, 2000. 160pp. £19.95
Another Water (The River Thames, For Example) By Roni Horn. Scalo, 2000. 112pp. £24.95 Distributed by Thames & Hudson
This summer, a project nurtured for several years by London's Public Art Development Trust and a New York agency, Minetta Brook, has been coming to fruition. Called the Thames and Hudson Rivers Project, it involves five artists making works in response to the rivers that are so integral to the ident ity of London and New York (AJ 31.10.96).
One participant is the American artist Roni Horn and, in line with the commissioners'openness about what public art might be - not just an object in a plaza - she has created a book, Another Water; no exclusive deluxe publication but something for the shelves of your local Waterstone's.
Coinciding with its appearance, Phaidon has issued a volume on Horn in its excellent large-format softback Contemporary Artists series. With many well-chosen illustrations, critical essays and interviews, it traces her career from the early 1980s, presenting work in several different media - sculpture, drawings, photographs and texts - and including the permanent walkway in alternating hard and soft rubber which she has just designed for Basel station.
The sculptures in particular show Horn's affinity with Minimalist art: tiny coloured glass wedges poised on steel shelves projecting from the wall; Gold Field, a single sheet of gold foil laid out on the floor like a gleaming topographical relief; two large square glass blocks of an unusual blue.
But, of a generation after the 1960s Minimalists, Horn uses pared-down forms to other ends than them, often more consciously expressive: her slabs of solid aluminium, for instance, are inlaid with black plastic quotes from Kafka or Emily Dickinson. In one work, two identical truncated copper cones are placed at different angles in separate rooms, frustrating exact comparison, and forcing viewers continually to revise their perceptions as they move from one to the other. 'There is a lot of metaphor in my work and that is mostly because I put it there, ' she says.
The constant thread in Horn's practice, around which her diverse works cohere, comes from the lengthy trips to Iceland which she has made for many years. These are the basis for her unusual 'encyclopaedia' of that country called To Place, whose volumes - in which photographs predominate - sporadically appear.
Horn studies chunks of lava, geological formations, sheepfolds (geometry in the landscape), hot springs, the architecture of swimming pools - a stark, primal, volatile realm in which 'civilisation' looks tenuous.
'Iceland is the place where I have the clearest view of myself and my relationship to the world, ' says Horn; and that relationship is her theme.Experience of place can't be distinguished from experience of self; this blurring of subjective and objective is a constant in all we perceive. It is a timeworn proposition but Horn gives it new life. In mapping Iceland, she charts her 'inner geography' as well.
It is no surprise, then, that her River Thames project, Another Water, is at once a portrait of a specific river, a more general meditation on water, and a fragmented monologue. It presents more than 50 double-page photographic details of the surface of the Thames, with a strip at the bottom of each spread for Horn's brief annotations - 832 of them in all.
'When water is translated into a photographic image it has so many different personas, ' she writes; which this book certainly confirms. The photographs are extraordinary. One could be an aerial view of a mountain range, documenting stone not liquid; whereas, in another light and weather, the river becomes smooth and gelatinous, like a closeup of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. Meanwhile Horn's annotations prompt readers to interrogate both themselves and the photographs ('Have you ever noticed how light camouflages water? ) and introduce her own, often dark thoughts upon the subject (the Thames' attraction for suicides recurs).
Roni Horn is a most interesting artist; Another Water is a fine addition to an impressive body of work.