Roni Horn has written poems and elegies to pools, to meltwater. Vatnasafn, the Library of Water, Horn’s twelve-year site-specific project, archives glacial meltwater in floor-to-ceiling glass tubes in a little former library on top of a hill in the coastal town of Stykkishólmur.
Twenty-four glaciers are represented in the glass columns, silt gathering at their bases and blending with the brown floor, which is, itself, an instillation, inscribed with words like brutal, hazy, bitter. Words that describe qualities of water and weather; words that describe qualities of people.
The library was empty the day I went, the vibe more house-of-worship than art gallery, (it has been described as: “a sculptural installation and a community centre”). To enter, you must take off your shoes. The library provides a basket with slippers. A small room off the main gallery was devoted to writers and photographers, Emily Dickinson among others, a writer Horn likens to a volcano: “Dickinson invented a syntax out of herself, and Iceland did too. Volcanos do.” The library included excerpts from To Place, Horn’s ongoing intimate prose and photography project about her relationship to Iceland. Horn, an American visual artist and writer, the granddaughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, first visited Iceland in the 1970s, traveling the nation by motorcycle, and now calls New York City and Reykjavik home. To Place began in 1990. From the Guggenheim:
By the end of 2001, she had produced eight volumes, along with additional, unrelated artist’s books. Horn has used some of her photographs in both books and photographic installations. For example, many of the images in You Are the Weather (1994–96)—one hundred close-ups of a young woman’s face, photographed as she bathed in a variety of Icelandic pools in diverse weather conditions—were published in one of the To Place volumes. The images, made during a six-week period of traveling, capture a sense of androgyny and, to Horn, eroticism.
The young woman’s face in the pictures holds three weathers—her own, Horn’s, and Iceland’s. “Everyone has a story about the weather,” Horn writes in the introduction to Weather Reports You (2006). “This may be one of the only things that each of us holds in common.” I felt like I was trespassing, or, more accurately, walking through the library was like being a houseguest left alone in someone’s home while they went to work. The library felt stilled yet animated. It posed its own questions.
Horn’s minimalism first drew me in (although she is more often described as “post-minimalist”), also, the ethics of Horn’s imaginary. “Weather is the key paradox in our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong.” In the Anthropocene, we are all already ashamed. There’s a distillation in her work that blends science with art, and through her cross-disciplinary simplification, I can imagine into a future where glaciers are no more than evocations, chilly elegant columns charming the entrance to a Reykjavik hotel. My appreciation for the beauty of the columns shifted until it critiqued me back. Questions embedded in the Library project, for me, are, what is the role of the erotic when describing environmental ruin? When is “witness” in the service of spectacle? How does work by Horn, by poets like Juliana Spahr—writing toward our environment in this time—toe the line of complicity, guilt, agency, and desire?
The glacier columns are subjunctive: rare and beautiful, and would that we did not need such artful preservation at all.
“I want to make being here enough,” Horn writes in 1990. “Maybe it’s already enough. I won’t have to invent enough. I’ll be here and I won’t do anything and this place will be here, but I won’t do anything to it. . . . And maybe because I’m here and because the me in what’s here makes what’s here different, maybe that will be enough. Maybe that will be what I’m after, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure I’ll be able to perceive the difference. . . . I need to find a way to make myself absolutely not here, but still be able to be here to know the difference.”