Roni Horn: Library of Water At Stykkishólmur, Iceland, until 2032 In Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the explorers begin their descent in western Iceland on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, with its glacier, craters, caves and basalt columns. Jutting out from the peninsula's north coast is the small windswept town of Stykkishólmur, where, on a bluff facing the Atlantic, is a modest building from the 1950s that was once the local library. After interventions by the American artist Roni Horn, this has now become the Library of Water - unlikely as it seems, the latest project of London's arts facilitator Artangel.
Still remembered especially for having instigated Rachel Whiteread's House, Artangel has a long track record in matching artists to unusual sites: a gentlemen's club in St James'; the Roundhouse before John McAslan restored it; the streets of Whitechapel. This is its first project abroad. Some of Roni Horn's work could be loosely labelled Minimalist - two truncated solid copper cones of hers are at either end of one of the old military buildings at Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation in Texas, and she's made equally reductive pieces in cast glass, aluminium and gold foil. But her practice is too various to pigeonhole, comprising drawings, texts, photographs and books as well as her cryptic alluring objects.
A thread connecting much of her output is Iceland, where Horn has travelled annually for 30 years, affected deeply by the volatility of the country's weather and geology. You can experience a week or more's weather in a day there, or from a vantage point see several weathers at once: storm clouds as grey as lava in one direction, sun or mist in another. And given the hot springs, geysers and continuing volcanic activity, the ground you walk on seems barely stable, as if the landscape is still taking shape.
Yet amid all this ux, says Horn, Iceland is where she learnt to see: 'The atmosphere is an optic lens, focusing each view and its components into vivid and stunning clarity.'
It took her some while, she adds, to turn her experience of Iceland into art, not just succumb to its postcard-friendly scenery, but she went on to make a series of idiosyncratic and beautifully produced books under the title To Place.
Sheepfolds, samples of lava, and swimming pools (both manmade and natural) are some of their subjects. So before creating this Library of Water, she's shown an impulse to classify (or at least group together) things that aren't usually classified, while water has figured in her projects outside Iceland too - notably in numerous close-up photos of the Thames, in which the river takes on multiple identities depending on the weather, light, current and degree of pollution.
In appearance, the building housing the Library of Water is a 1950s reprise of inter-war Moderne - now spruced up but unremarkable except for its fenestration and position, both of which Horn exploits to the full. It's a library not with stacks or shelves but floor-to-ceiling columns: 24 of them, 3m high, each filled with water from different glacial sites in Iceland.
In most of them the liquid is awlessly clear, in others foggy;
but even at the bottom of the clear ones a sediment is settling - black volcanic particles or a yellowish residue.
The columns are clustered quite closely near the centre of the installation, dispersed towards its edges, and they're alive with reections, refractions and distortions - splintering the room and surrounding landscape into luminous slivers and ghost-like images, which are reconfigured with your slightest movement.
Horn says: 'I chose some glaciers that might not be around in a decade. I liked the absurdity of archiving water but it's frighteningly appropriate. I could never have done this as a purely visual thing, it's the scarcity of the material that matters.' But the 'visual thing' is totally engrossing - you just keep on looking.
There's also a linguistic dimension. The oor is of vulcanised yellow-grey rubber, with words in English and Icelandic picked out in a lighter colour: over 50 adjectives for describing the weather, such as wet, wild or gloomy. As for the Icelandic: well, stormasant one can probably guess, but what do tryllt, kyrtt or suddalegt mean?
Of course there's a translation on hand.
Some of the terms are opposities, others much more closely related (how does 'calm' differ from 'serene'? ), so in starting to apply them to the scene outside the library, or to a context other than the weather, this oor of words asks you to make precise discriminations. As an entity, then, this installation is an instrument to fine-tune your responses - your vision, your language, your thinking.
Like all libraries - or like the magical little boxes Joseph Cornell made, with their bottles full of powders or liquids, their driftwood and maps - the Library of Water is a site of mental travel too, of journeys to sites one will probably never see (those glaciers). 'The existence of these unseen but accessible places is of consequence to each of us. They function to keep the world large, hopeful and unknown, ' says Horn.
Her project continues with an accumulating archive of stories about Iceland's weather (a selection has been published in Weather Reports You, Steidl, £20), and the library isn't only for tourists - various community uses are planned, including a room for aspiring female chess players and the Stykkishólmur Chess Club, and a writer-in-residence's studio.
Artangel has a 25-year lease on the building, so perhaps there's no need to rush, but until 19 August in Studio Granda's impressive Reykjavík Art Museum there's a substantial show of Horn's work, which opens with photos of ice blocks from a disintegrating glacier, adrift in a misty lagoon. They return you to her source of inspiration - Iceland, in all its singularity - and to one of her comments on Verne: 'His fiction could be an actual description of this place. All his episodes of geological wonder are already lined up out here in plain sight.'
A trip to Horn's Library of Water is sure to substantiate that.
Stykkishólmur is a two-hour drive from Reykjavík and there's a daily bus service. For further details visit www. libraryofwater. is