Roni Horn: Environment, Emotion and Change
This morning, the weather was cloudy; this afternoon, it is raining; and this evening, it is supposed to be clear and mild. Although it is a rather dull truism to note how our atmospheric conditions are so mercurial, it is much more daring to try and show how the weather that storms – or shines – inside each one of us is at least as intemperate. Since the late 1970s, American artist Roni Horn has explored the shifting, mutable nature of identity, feeling and emotion, often in relation to our environment. She suggests that we are the weather – a complex system of forces whose effect changes by the week, hour and minute.
Across a wide range of media – including photography, sculpture and text-based works – Horn has been tracing the subtle variations in her chosen subject through exercises in grouping and repetition. She asks viewers to form and reform their perceptions by looking again and again, as changes in basic elements such as light, composition and colour also change understanding. Two important works by this acclaimed multidisciplinarian, one from the Gallery’s permanent collection and another on loan, are currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada.
Born and based in New York City, Horn has been drawn, almost magnetically, to the rugged volcanic landscape of Iceland since she first visited as a student in 1975, at the age of 19. The country has been like “an open-air studio of unlimited scale and newness,” she says. “Big enough to get lost on; small enough to find yourself.” She calls it her “quarry,” the source of so much material.
Horn's first-ever photographic series, You Are the Weather (1994–96), was shot on the Nordic island, and became a seminal work in her career. She photographed Icelandic artist Margrét Haraldsdóttir Blöndal over six weeks, as the pair travelled around the country, visiting its natural hot springs and geothermal pools. They shot every day, in whatever conditions Iceland’s unpredictable climate brought them. In each image, Blöndal appears submerged up to her neck in water. Horn’s only direction for her was to look directly into the lens. Across the 100-photo series, Blöndal’s face displays a spectrum of emotions. “Those changes, that range of emotion,” the artist has said, “were in fact provoked by the weather. It’s the sun in her eyes, it’s snowing, it’s windy.” The “you” in the work’s title actually refers to the viewer gazing at Blöndal’s face, says Horn. “When you are in the room with her, it’s as though you’ve provoked those responses, you become the weather.” The work conflates our complex interior lives with meteorological conditions – both constantly evolving and difficult to predict. A person is a multitude, it suggests, and each individual contains storms and sunshine, blizzards and droughts, all at once.
Fifteen years later, Horn returned for You Are the Weather, Part 2 (2011–12), currently on view at the Gallery. In this series, Horn revisits the landmark project, photographing Blöndal once again in close-up, outdoors, facing the elements, immersed in water. The sequel series also consists of 100 photos – 66 coloured prints and 34 black-and-white – which are installed in groupings, encircling the entire space. No matter where viewers turn, they will face Blöndal. And yet, with 100 more expressions displayed, viewers must ask themselves: Do we know the subject any better? Or do character and identity perhaps reside beneath the grins and grimaces of the surface?
Installed in the adjacent gallery, Horn's Untitled ("A dream dreamt in a dreaming world is not really a dream … but a dream not dreamt is”) is a more formal sculptural installation, produced during roughly the same period as You Are the Weather, Part 2 and exploring similar concepts of surface, depth, environment and change. The ten periwinkle pools belong to a large body of cast-glass sculpture the artist has been making since the 1990s.
Horn pours coloured molten glass into a mould, which is left to harden for several months. The process creates a frosted appearance on the sides and bottom of the form, in contrast to the highly polished top surface, which appears liquid and lets viewers peer inside. The glacial cylinders come alive in the ambient light streaming through the room's wall of windows. Illuminated by the sun’s slow march across the sky, the visual identity of each pool is in constant flux. But much as You Are the Weather demonstrates, the surface appearance of things isn’t merely a reflection, but rather a negotiation between the outside world and an interior one.
In two markedly different mediums – one as slow and heavy as cast glass and the other as instantaneous as a shutter snap –Horn builds her poem about the mutable nature of identity, meaning and our perceptions. The works show us that they evolve like a storm system. And they can be as fleeting as a ray of light.
You Are the Weather, Part 2 and Untitled ("A dream dreamt in a dreaming world is not really a dream … but a dream not dreamt is”) are on view in Rooms B104 and B105 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.