Roni Horn: Photographien

Roni Horn


Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

15 April – 14 August 2011

Roni Horn, To Place. Pooling Waters, 1994, p. 15

Jesse van Winden, August 2011

Identity as a function of time

‘The mutable version of identity is not an aberration…the fixed version is the aberration’, New York-based Roni Horn (1955) stated in a 2009 exhibition catalogue. This summer, Hamburger Kunsthalle showed Photographien, a retrospective exhibition of Horn’s photographic work. A number of works on display can be read as an exposé of one of the most fundamental concepts in her work. In the midst of all ‘neo-colonialism’ it is good to see a show where not some artist’s precious identity is foregrounded, but instead the whole notion of identity itself is deconstructed.

Ever since Horn visited Iceland for the first time in 1975, this isolated, extremely active piece of the planet has provided an existential influx of insight and solidity for her work. In the enigmatic first room of Photographien she shows a series of artist’s books (To Place, 1990-, presently six volumes), all with Iceland as chief point of departure. One of them contains a short text in which Horn describes how the discovery of a place, a ‘here’, takes always place through oneself. To be conscious of a ‘here’ means in the first place to be conscious of oneself – body, mind, consciousness, thoughts. This logically leads to the idea that consciousness of a place means above all consciousness of oneself.

Opposite the tables displaying To Place, are suspended C-prints alternatingly showing rocky hot springs with troubled waters and double portraits of prepubescent boys (Becoming a Landscape, 1999-2001). The double portraits show the same faces twice, the photographs are taken only split seconds after another. The slight differences in facial expressions are eventually more striking than the traits themselves. The observation that faces and people in general are constantly changing is reinforced by the images of restless hot springs. As nature is always in motion, ever changing, and therefore evasive, it is in a certain sense unknowable. One knows this is a geyser or something like that, but this term which one can look up and obtain a geological explanation of, offers only a model to understand the individual phenomenon. The transforming face of the child becomes a parallel for the transformation of its identity. A river, as Horn shows later on in Some Thames (2000), is fluid, continuously transforming and infinitely multiple. Still we are capable of adequately calling the Thames by its name. ‘Identity is a river’, Horn said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist. Transformation of identity is, although almost unnoticeable, an inescapable fact. Some biographical properties may never change, still they reveal one’s nature only partly. The first room sets the tone for the onto-psychological results Horn is able to continue to develop over the exhibition.

Roni Horn, Some Thames, 2000, detail

The next room is filled with a surround of photographs, in different techniques and formats but all equally high, and appended slightly above eye level. The series is called Pi (1997-8), like the mathematical entity to measure circular and spherical bodies and calculate their properties. The reference to the circle might seem somewhat inappropriate in a square room, but all pictures are taken in the proximity of the Arctic Circle. Crossing the northernmost parts of Iceland as well as the North Atlantic Ocean, the photographs show a broad, almost encyclopaedic array of what the Arctic Circle looks like: seascapes, bird nests, interiors, an elderly couple and images of the soap opera they are watching. The Circle exists very real as a perfect geometric form imposed on the planet’s surface, at 66° 33′ 44″ latitude. At the same time, it is a virtual line, visually imperceptible once one has come to its actual course. The natural cycles of humans, animals, seasons and tides is thus insolvably measured against the natural mathematics of the planet, and against the elevated horizon that the photographs are creating against the walls of the exhibition space.

Roni Horn, Pi, 1997-8, detail

In an adjacent room, the Hamburger Kunsthalle shows You are the Weather (1994-5), an iconic point of departure of Horn’s philosophy. A hundred portraits of the same woman’s face, all taken close-up in a swimming pool, some of them with steam partially hiding the face, most of them C-prints but some in gelatin silver, form a study of the versatility of the human face. The silent dialogues the viewer could get going with the faces are likely to be about the endlessness of features and traits and the impression made by them (as a conversation with the weather could be like). Conterminously it is a study of photography at large. Photography involves a paradox that gives rise to Horn’s principles: as motionless registrations of volatility, they imply a tautology of our ostensibly static classification systems. Images, words, traces and arguments are ostensibly clear, coded reflections of indistinct, evasive and conflicting information.

Roni Horn, You are the Weather, 1994-5, detail

Two other particularly interesting series of works are displayed in three rooms. a.k.a. (2008-9) and This is Me, This is You (1999-2000) both elaborate on Horn’s understanding of identity, but take on a more personal attitude. The former series consists of 15 paired portraits of Horn herself, each pair showing the artist in again another phase of her life, often coupling a colour photograph with a black and white one, and often showing Horn in a feminine style next to a more masculine pose. The connection between all these images is the certainty of erratic transformation, reflecting countless consecutive and arbitrary factors, and the inevitability of stressing that somehow, in an abstract sense unfathomably, but in a daily concreteness very evidently so, it is still the same person we are seeing. This is Me, This is You takes two small rooms, whose installations mimic each other. Here, 48 double portraits of the artist’s young niece are not put next to one another, but are divided instead. The counterparts are appended in the same positions in the different rooms. Since each pair of images is taken only moments apart, an experiment arises. One can let the images in one room sink in, scrutinize the looks of the girl that has grown at least a year older over the course of all photographs, ignoring their snapshot, manipulative quality. Walking over to the next room, one recognizes the images but is challenged to evaluate the capacity of his short-time memory to remember how these images differ from their counterparts. We seem to have a keen ability to deduct from a still image of a human face an abstract, memorable model, just like we do in a fluently moving face-to-face situation. We know the face, the name, we add to it a bit of anecdotal knowledge, and end up with entirely different information than the labelled kind used in an official document or a social media profile. Those different kinds of knowledge do not necessarily coincide.

Identity is often reduced to a taxonomy, a classification system that determines one’s nature on basis of categories like birthplace, gender, age, residence, profession and appearance, but also on less gross measures. A circle of friends, a habit, a favourite musician, activities in the last couple of months, a youth sin, personal revolutions, an early recollection, one’s present location: they all leave a mark on a person. Circumstances like these radically change one’s state of mind from moment to moment, and accumulatively determine one’s individuality. Horn’s interest seems to lie in the relationship between these extremes, which more often than not result in a collision. The works in Photographien are collisions between photography’s random exposure and the becoming subject. Roni Horn knows how to articulate a theorem in an active, open-ended way. She succeeds in offering refined ideas on the relation of identity to time, memory, fragmented information and the pseudo-materiality of the coded label. The vigour of the exhibition is to be found in the integrity and infinity of Horn’s thought. Everything flows.

Roni Horn.This is Me, This is You, 1999-2000, detail

Roni Horn.This is Me, This is You, 1999-2000, detail


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