Roni Horn (New York, 1955) may have the name of a jazz musician but she is an award-winning artist with a fascination for the natural environment and our relationship with it; how we try to control it, and how like it we are. The title of the show, Everything was Sleeping as if The Universe Were a Mistake, is a line from The Book of Disquiet by the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, who seems keener to pass on his feelings of unease to us than to clarify them linguistically. And, I guess, this is what Roni Horn does too - her pared-down style beckoning you in, but always keeping its distance, much like the natural landscape itself. Best known for long-term, on-site art projects that evolve over time, such as Iceland's Library of Water, a temporary exhibition of her work isn’t easy to get to grips with.
Water is one of her ‘neuroses’, says Horn, and water is a running theme in this show, only it never runs. Ever present, ever absent, it is pinned down in language, in drawings, under numbers or behind glass. At the entrance, two big white owls stare at you. The name of the twin photographs is Dead Owl (1997), but are both owls dead or just one of them? The taxidermist has dried out one (or both) of the owls, sucked the water right out of it to immortalise it.
In the room beyond, water is all around, but only by implication. In You are the Weather, Part 2, 2011, a woman immersed in Icelandic spa water is seen only from the neck up. We observe her from head height, as if the room were the pool and we were in it, too. She stares at us, much like the owls do, while droplets trickle from her ears and clump on her eyelashes. This photo is repeated dozens of times around the room, yet each is subtly different. At times she seems serious, pensive, at times she’s almost smiling. We can read her moods from one end of the room or the other, or start in the middle. Their evolution is not progressive, then, but ebbs and wanes in waves and cycles. Surrounded by her rippling moods, we splash about in our own.
And often, in these big Miró rooms, space takes centre stage while her art provides the landscape details. It slides down walls in transparent tubes on which bits of poems (by Emily Dickinson) are sometimes written backwards, in mirror language (White Dickinson 2006-10). It blobs across the floor in big gummy pools, acid-green, like massive fruit gums (Untitled, 2012-13). It presents itself as ‘scientific’ photographs: in Still Water (The River Thames for Example, (1999), the dark surface of the River Thames, slick and crinkly like the bruised skin of cold custard, is punctured with teeny numbers as if its topography were being studied. In Her, Her, Her, and Her (2002), a myriad of doors open on to the long tiled corridor of a locker room, in each cubicle a mirror reflects the wall opposite evoking an intricate network in infinite repetition like when you look at a plant through a microscope.When you’re looking at nature, you find what you want to find, says Horn, you inevitably try 'to make it more like yourself'. Observing these controlled, synthetic landscapes that alienate us as much as they entice, perhaps her message with this show is: 'And look where that’s getting us!'
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, theatre and dance in a way that human beings can understand. For more about Barcelona arts, check her blog: www.lookingfordrama.com