Manifold Singularity: An Interview with Roni Horn

Roni Horn, the American artist who has adopted Iceland as her Muse, is a material poet. By that I mean she is able to coax out of the materials from which she makes her work (in a variety of artistic disciplines) a range of meaning that is not always sensibly connected but that is emotionally and sensually convincing. In the same way that poetry is a reduction in focus and number, the effect of which is to suggest a cluster of readings, Horn’s work narrows down her subjects and their treatment, only to have their meanings explode in other, and myriad, directions. Her work looks simple but our experience of it is complex.

She effects this knowledgeable confusion by producing work that insists upon close looking regardless of material (steel, copper, glass or aluminium) or medium (sculpture, drawing, photography or installation). She has an unwavering ability to get at some essential commingling of form, object and substance so that they seem inevitable and appear inseparable. In Horn’s vision, you can’t tell the form from the material any more than WB Yeats could tell his dancer from the dance …

Early in her practice, Horn was linked with Minimalism, largely because of her reductive abilities and her economy of expression. But it was a careless association, which she describes as a “misunderstanding. Anyone who has been paying attention to my work over the last 20 years cannot talk about Minimalism,” she says. “It’s just wrong.”

She is justly right. Horn may share with Judd, LeWitt, Andre et al, a concentration on the physical qualities of her materials, but the effect of their employment has little to do with the reductions of classic Minimalism. The apprehension of meaning in Horn’s work is a complicated process that moves into the object and remains in “the sense of what is present now in the moment,” what she calls the mundane. Appreciating the mundane combines the function of looking and the task of the looker. She is firmly committed to the idea “that the work comes together in the presence of the viewer and not outside that presence.”

Horn is a pragmatist who works in the interrogative mode. In her description of the world, she refers to an “element of doubt and the enigmatic quality that things hold.” Out of those conditions, “questions arise and those questions can enrich experience. Questions are often a form of answer because they are in effect rhetorical, or there is no answer. There is no ultimate address.” This recognition is neither sophistry nor cynicism. You pose questions because you hope to discover answers; questions are never an impasse, but are invariably a way of moving on.

“The more paradox the better,” she said in a recent conversation, “the open-ended element that you have in paradox is fascinating to me.” A paradox, after all, is not the absence of an answer but is the reconciliation of a pair of answers held within the same conceptual or conditional frame. That reconciliation can sometimes be uneasy, but it is never unwelcome. The attraction that paradox holds for her, apart from the conviction that it corresponds to the way things are, is that it represents a form of doubling. In the world according to Roni Horn, two is the perfect number …

“Roni Horn aka Roni Horn,” a retrospective of Horn’s work, opened at the Tate Modern in London, uk, on February 25, 2009, where it is on exhibition until May 25, after which it will go to Avignon and then the Whitney Museum of American Art, beginning in November 2009.

The following interview was conducted on March 11, 2009, at the residence of the President of the University of Guelph, just a few hours before Roni Horn delivered the Third Annual Shenkman Lecture.

BORDER CROSSINGS: The thing about your work that perplexes me is how you get such resonance, such depth out of what you do when you are forcing us to stay with the object. What is the thing that happens there? You mentioned alchemy.

RONI HORN: I don’t think I’m involved with alchemy. I can understand why people think that but I’m really a pragmatist. I don’t know what goes on but over the years I have developed a kind of concentration in this relationship with the audience. But there is a lot of withholding in my work. There’s clarity and there’s withholding, which may be experienced by the viewer as longing. Longing becomes a kind of motivation.

The work does create longing, but I would go further and say it creates desire.

Absolutely. I am not averse to using sensuality. It’s as good an entrance as any. You can use narrative, or accessibility, or expectation; there are a lot of ways to pull people into something. Certainly with the sculptures I’ve definitely used a sensual appeal …

Why did you become an artist in the first place? Why would it have been attractive to you?

I never really thought about anything else. I don’t even think there’s good and bad art. You either have art or you don’t, and that’s as close as humanity will ever get to nature. By nature I don’t mean trees per se but things that are complex beyond knowing. I’m not interested in the kind of discovery which explains or resolves why things are the way they are. It seems to me that the question is the answer, and that’s the space I want to entertain. The work that is most meaningful to me doesn’t attempt to be definitive …

How do you know where you’ll go next? Your work tends to be re-deployed and reused. The owls have turned up in five or six places. Do you know what you’ll do back in the studio?

Right now I’m interested to get back to a large drawing that’s been on the wall for the last 10 months. Since graduate school I’ve drawn almost as a daily practice. I felt that my relationship to this form was immediately rewarding, whether it was a bad drawing or not. Most of the drawings were throw-outs, but it was the engagement that was important, and then that idea bleeds over into everything. I mean you’ve got drawing in the photo work, in sculpture, in filmmaking and in writing. So that became absolutely central to my relationship to myself. Drawing is a huge part of what I do in the studio. I will say it’s the only form I work with that starts in the visual and stays in the visual and ends in the visual. The way I tend to work with the drawings is I’ve got them up in some stage of development and I’m watching them out of the corner of my eye while I’m working on completely different projects. They come into my consciousness through the side door. There usually is a point where I feel the energy and say, “Oh, I know where to go.” It isn’t a visual direction per se, but a sense of options …

See Issue 110 to read Robert Enright’s entire interview with Roni Horn!