Roni Horn, Island Zombie: Iceland Writings

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Princeton University Press (here). Hardcover (6×9 inches), 256 pages, with 43 color and 8 black-and-white illustrations. Includes texts, essays, and poems by the artist. $35 (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: These excerpts from Roni Horn’s diaries, lectures, and essays (1991-2019) are a soothing remedy for pandemic and presidential coup anxieties. Meditations on the landscape and weather of Iceland, her home away from home for decades, they read like a love letter to the stark beauty of the island nation and together constitute a self-portrait of an artist who revels in isolation and finds sensory fulfillment gazing at ascetic panoramas.

Horn thinks of herself as a writer more than as a photographer or sculptor so this collection is not anomalous. “I move through language to arrive at the visual,” she has said. “You use metaphor to make yourself feel at home in the world.”

Much of the book describes her confrontation with the mundane details of existence, with minute changes. Daily life in Iceland is not governed by major public crises; scandals are granular. Nor can it boast of countless varieties of flora and fauna. Much of the land qualifies as desert. Minimalist vistas and the challenges of monotony, however, only seems to push Horn toward deeper reflection. Here she is on the bottomless hunger of sight: “You consume with your eyes. And eyes are voracious. The stomach has a size. It will only fit so much. But the eyes?…You think eventually you will get enough. But satisfaction and familiarity don’t come. You just keep wanting and waiting. Wanting and waiting, needing more. A meal that does not end.”

One of her first vivid childhood memories of this faraway land dates to November 15, 1963, when TV networks covered a volcanic eruption off the southern tip of the island. Molten lava flowing into the ocean caused it to steam and boil. The emerging land was described by broadcasters as a primeval act of creation. The new island was named Surtsey, after the Icelandic goddess of fire.

Horn (b. 1955) was 8 and remembers this photojournalistic spectacle in tandem with another violent event, the assassination of JFK, which happened a week later. “This unlikely public pairing fused into a formative event in my life. The eruption, the violent snuffing out…the hyped up drama of something truly dramatic, the news on a seemingly endless loop…the photographic evidence, and the peculiar aggression of stopped action, the brute irrevocability.” Birth and death.

She became smitten on her first visit, in 1975, undertaken on a fellowship after earning her MFA in sculpture from Yale. Her memory of that trip, she writes here, is “dominated by weather. The sky, the wind, and the light made a strong impression. Weather simply hadn’t occurred to me before then.” For six months she traveled by bike across the island, mainly over unpaved roads. It soon became a destination she revisited with “migratory insistence and regularity” and “the only place I went without cause, just to be there.”

She has called Iceland her “studio” or “quarry” and has set most of her works here, moving freely between sculpture and photography and artist books, commonly invoking the elements (water, air, light) and specific times and locations on the island. Her acclaimed ongoing book series To Place (1990-) includes Bluff Life (1990), a chronicle of her stay in a lighthouse on the southern coast; and Verne’s Journey (1995), a quixotic attempt to discover the volcanic fissure where the explorers in Jules Verne’s 1871 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth made their fictional descent and ascent. Perhaps her most famous photographs are close-up portraits of an Icelandic woman named Margret, titled You are the Weather, the first part of which was done in 1994-96 and resumed 15 years later.

Weather is one theme in her oeuvre and the dominant one in this book. Its subtleties seem to nourish her by demanding that she be alert, and she notes that instead of animals that can harm you—“no snakes, no crocodiles, or alligators,” and no crime, “no irrational threats”—Icelanders have to worry constantly about storms. “Weather with its amoral, wanton violence is lethal here.”

Horn is hardly the first foreigner to fall in love with this treeless, windblown slice of volcanic rock and its hardy, courteous people. While the tradition of Iceland in the visual arts is nothing to speak of—it produced no paintings of note until the 20th century—the collection of medieval stories, known as The Sagas, inspired Wagner, Borges, Auden, and Tolkien. Iceland’s citizens are among the most literate on the planet. A higher proportion of them read and write books than in any other country. Horn clearly admires this aspect of her adopted land. Literary tributes in the book (to Emily Dickinson, William Morris, Wallace Stevens, Halldór Laxness) outnumber references to other artists.

As a diarist, Horn directs her gaze outward, her recording eye fixed on what she is seeing out the window or having for breakfast. The emotional line is flat and factual, without exuberance or tormented confessions of doubt. I’m guessing she decided to expunge the names of people she might have corresponded with back in the U.S. during these years so that readers wouldn’t be distracted by biographic details. However deliberate, it is nonetheless odd, and a little impersonal, that she fails to mention anyone she might be missing—not a parent (living or dead), lover, relative, friend, teacher or student. Every year, wherever she goes across the island, she travels alone, physically and mentally. Or so it seems in this edit.

Her preference for philosophic speculation may frustrate art historians looking for insight into her nuts-and-bolts process of making art. I read only one instance where she describes the taking of a picture: a few paragraphs from 1993 of a peculiar fantasy wherein she raised her camera to record a sunset and instead saw through the lens the voluptuous lips of Marilyn Monroe in the iconic photograph by Bert Stern! Several chapters on the swimming pools she has photographed dwell on the intimate architectural spaces—the locker room doors, peepholes, mirrors, tiles—without telling us much about why she decided on one view rather than another.

The most touching section of the book is an excerpt from her piece Weather Reports You (2007), a  series of interviews with Icelanders about their memories of snow, rain, and wind on land and sea. She sampled only one community, residents in the village of Stykkishólmur, and she emphasizes that responses would differ elsewhere on the island. Each interview is accompanied by her tiny unassuming color snapshots of local buildings there during various times of day and seasons. Horn’s art is anti-spectacular, whatever the medium.

She does not go into Iceland’s political history. World War II was a blessing, the influx of capital from the occupying British and then American forces bringing it out of the Great Depression. The U.S. had a navy base until 2006. The war also allowed Iceland to sever its long ties to Denmark and to formally declare its independence in 1944. More recently, and uncharacteristically, given its reputation for sober modesty, the country became infamous as Ground Zero in the collapse of the global economy in 2007-08, when a group of its investment bankers speculated recklessly on mortgage backed securities, a subject alluded to in Isaac Julien’s 2013 video installation Playtime.

It was a moment when Iceland suddenly could no longer pretend to be a place disconnected from the rest of the world. Horn stealthily forces us to recognize this transformation in other ways as well. Not until halfway through the book did I begin to realize that her fixation on weather and water was also indirectly a warning about climate change, an enveloping catastrophe that is making the island and its people a beachhead for existential risk.

In her Notes on the Obsolescence of Islands (2003/19), she lists all the reasons that islands may be facts on the map but they are no longer what they once were: “solitary,” “faraway,” “unknown,” “inaccessible,” or “figments of the imagination.” Oil spills, plastics, mass communications, algorithms mean that “islands are now contiguous with everywhere.”

In a 2006 talk before the Iceland Academy of Arts in Reykjavik, she concluded by saying that she was filled with “love for the uniqueness of your island, your culture, and you. Faith, that you will invent a future that does not forsake that essence and uniqueness of your island. But then being a realist I also have fear. Fear for a future in which Iceland fails to take responsibility for its uniqueness.”

Her book is a testament to her contingent optimism and to decades of visits to a place that she believes chose her rather than the other way around. Feeling jumpy? Read a few pages of Horn. Her writing voice never sounds rushed or in a panic about anything. The imperceptible changes of geologic time and the banal ubiquity of the elements, a deadly topic for most people, is her bread and butter as an artist. She might have been a farmer in another life. I can’t tell if she is a Buddhist, but from the evidence here she has internalized its entreaty that one should try to be present at all times.

Tourists now flock to Iceland in search of Björk’s birthplace or the cinematic backgrounds for Game of Thrones. If Horn resents their inattentive visits, she doesn’t express it here. She doesn’t need to scroll through Instagram to discover the next coolest stop. She is a migrant who has found a home.

Collector’s POV: Roni Horn is represented by Hauser & Wirth in New York (here). Horns work (as single images and multi image sets) has been intermittently available at auction in the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $350000.

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