Roni Horn: Everything Was Sleeping as If the Universe Were a Mistake

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 20 June – 28 September

By Keith Patrick

While one applauds the correct use of the subjunctive in the exhibition title, as with much of Roni Horn’s work this turns out to be a quotation. And while such acts of appropriation can often be revealing, in the American artist’s work there is a pervasive sense of masking, an evasiveness, which, while not detracting from her art’s effect, is unsettling. With the artist choosing to withhold herself, the persona behind the mask is never clear. This arises partly from her use of radically varied artistic idioms, but as she herself admits, there is also a conscious camouflaging of identity.

In a.k.a. (2008–9), Horn presents a series of diptychs, pairing photographs of herself at different ages. Not only is it difficult to recognise them as the same person, the androgynous latter-day self, like her own name, slips between genders, proving impossible to map onto the frizzy-haired adolescent or innocent, wide-eyed infant. Elsewhere Horn uses an alter ego, as in the series You Are the Weather, Part 2 (2011), in which she returns to the same model after 15 years, with the model still, it seems, immersed to her chin in an Icelandic thermal pool. Horn maintains that facial expressions communicate a sense of place, itself a quasi-Romantic idea. But in reality the confrontational gaze of the subject is giving nothing away. And neither is the artist.

At times Horn plays the voyeur, as in Her, Her, Her, and Her (2002), 64 black-and-white stills candidly taken in the labyrinthine changing rooms of an anonymous establishment in Reykjav.k, where the occupants of the tiled cubicles are furtively glimpsed through peepholes and half-closed doors. The geology and human history of Iceland holds a particular fascination for this New York-based artist, as does water. Untitled (2012–13), the complete 89-word title of which reads like a pitch for a gothic horror movie, is a series of ice-green pools, roughly cast in solid glass and seemingly filled to the brim with water. With Barcelona temperatures in the thirties, they should be inviting, but there is something sinister and brooding about this obsession with water.

Taking this work together with the photo series Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) (1999), we are again returned to the elusive and in many ways absent figure of the artist. The Thames pictures are accompanied by footnotes, but not only is the main text itself missing, the anecdotal notes tease us with statements such as: ‘Water is sexy… the Thames is black… turgid… the Thames is us.’ Or the tale of a woman in a yellow Ford Fiesta who deliberately drives into a watery grave accompanied by her Irish setter. These stark intrusions read like hidden depths that can be glimpsed but are never given context and so never laid to rest.

Horn likes to quote from the American poet Emily Dickinson and the Brazilian writer Clarise Lispector, a Jewish emigr. from Eastern Europe whose family history mirrors Horn’s own. But whether this reading is intended remains opaque, for the words of both writers are treated as sculptural objects, cast in aluminium and encased in plastic like Blackpool rock or incised into rubber floor tiles thereafter to be walked upon. Is this a deliberate act of negation, a warning to keep our distance? Has Elvis – sorry, Roni – already left the building?

This touring exhibition (it opens at CaixaForum, Madrid, on 13 November) celebrates Horn’s receipt of the prestigious Joan Mir. Award with its prize of €70,000. The criteria of the award and the deliberations of the jury remain something of a mystery; but then again, so does Roni Horn.