Published as “Bottled Water” on Artforum.com on May 14, 2007.
STYKKISHÖLMUR, ICELAND—Certain artists and writers mark a location with an indelible stamp. Venice, for example, is often filtered through the eyes of Turner, Mann, Ruskin, and the poet Joseph Brodsky. After a two-day journey to Iceland to catch the opening of “My Oz,” Roni Horn’s survey exhibition at the Reykjavik Art Museum, and a site-specific project by the artist in Stykkishólmur commissioned by Artangel, no image of the country will form in my mind without an accompanying picture of Horn’s art. The reverse is true, too. Indeed, much of Horn’s work discloses itself in the context of this variegated, severe landscape.
Horn has been visiting the island since the ’70s, and barely five minutes after my Friday-morning arrival in Reykjavík, I learned that my hotel was where she photographed Dead Owl, 1997, her well-known diptych of snow-white birds; bizarrely, the building is a veritable zoo for taxidermic animals. After a tour of town, I joined the artist’s sister Ona Lindquist, collector and MoMA board member Kathy Fuld, Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot, and curators James Rondeau, Donna De Salvo, Frances Morris, and Linda Norden on a chartered ferry to Videy Island, a mile or so out into the placid Faxaflói Bay. We wandered the uninhabited rock searching for Afangar, an easy-to-miss, “very De Maria” (by consensus) Richard Serra sculpture, comprising pairs of basalt columns driven into the hills so that their tops are a uniform height above sea level.
That evening, we admired the museum’s tightly curated, exactingly installed overview of Horn’s oeuvre. A new, two-part sculpture made up of large, physically improbable amber glass blocks anchored two adjacent rooms on the first floor; opaque from the side, transparent from above, the bottoms of their interiors are miniature topographies. Upstairs, a new series of restrained but striking portraits of a single woman formed a staccato horizon line around the walls of another gallery. Dinner—with artist Tacita Dean and her irrepressible son, Rufus; Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson; Payot; and a little over one hundred other of Horn’s friends and collaborators—was held on a catamaran that made another loop around the bay. It was still daylight after the meal, and those revelers not suffering jet lag barhopped until an hour traditionally reserved for breakfast.
The landscape’s otherworldliness wasn’t impressed on us until the next morning, when the group clambered aboard three buses headed north to the Library of Water. The green adorning the steep mountain faces and reflected in the silvery sea disappeared gradually, only to be replaced by lumpy black lava fields and patches of snow. We stopped at a hotel near a location used by Jules Verne in Journey to the Center of the Earth and decamped for lunch and short hikes. At the meal, Artangel codirector James Lingwood offered some brief, sincere remarks, describing his joy at first coming across Horn’s photo books (one included images of a glacier visible from the hotel) and, paraphrasing Keats’s epitaph, suggesting that Horn is an artist whose name is “writ in water.”
The Library of Water is situated at the highest point in Stykkishólmur, a village of twelve hundred, and looks out over the sea in two directions. Between last August and earlier this year, Horn and her collaborators extracted ice from twenty-four glaciers around Iceland, storing the results in liquid form inside glass columns scattered through the building. Preserving these disappearing glaciers (yet paradoxically not in their natural state) is a deliberate—and deliberately provocative—act. Other collaborators recorded locals’ weather testimonials, words from which are embedded—in Icelandic and in English—in the rubber floor. (They are also collected in a book and on a website.) An apartment was also built into the design for a writer in residence. Artangel secured a twenty-five-year lease, and the entire building is to be given over to the community. (The work’s optical effect mirrors its social intent: The surrounding landscape is drawn into the building, captured by each transparent totem.) “My authorship is done,” Horn said, with characteristic directness.
On Saturday night, to a subdued crowd of sock-footed guests, inaugural writer in residence Gudrún Eva Minervudóttir read from her newest novel. Horn followed with a fifteen-minute excerpt from her text Saying Water, its repetitions achieving an incantatory grace. In Horn’s cosmology, landscape is weather is a face is water is words. Each is but a sounding board for the measure of experience. William James, chafing at language’s inability to convey experience, once wrote, “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, a feeling of cold.” His adjectives are apt, and Horn aims for similar flexibility in her work, to better record our encounters with the land and one another.
We broke for dinner at a nearby restaurant that has the kind of rustic charm one pays for through the nose in New York, then returned for a performance by the singer-songwriter Ólöf Arnalds, who recently joined the Icelandic indie-electronica band Múm. She sang Irish folk songs, country standards, and her own compositions, while playing her charango, an eight-string guitar whose body is made from an armadillo’s shell. The Icelandic lyrics’ incomprehensibility didn’t make the performance any less moving. Thousands of miles from the capital cities most of us call home, with the sun dropping into the ocean behind us, one couldn’t help but marvel at how Horn has created a space for scrutinizing the relationship between viewer and view, between feeling and fact.