The thing that’s so appealing about “the sublime” is that it’s indefinable and without boundaries. All markers are missing; there are no indicators, no specificities, no fixed framework in which to embed meaning. Instead, there is awe and universality, consisting entirely of experience and sensation culminating in metaphor. Roni Horn’s sculptural work appears to be invested in the sublime. It masquerades as a form of heavy-breathing Minimalism, but is relieved of its nearly tiresome beauty by a pervasive atmosphere of doubt. It is, in fact, anti-sublime—a paradoxical sublime, only somewhat transcendent, a sublime riddled with conceptual holes. Horn’s body of work could be seen as a response to Japanese Zen Master Hakuin’s advice to cultivate what he referred to as the “great doubt.” Hakuin felt that the mind is better off unburdened by unjustifiable assertions, that “at the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening,” a way out of the world’s heavy grid of assumptions. Horn’s sculptures, though physically concrete and forthright, can’t be pinned down—whether anchored in words or purely visual in form, they represent a fundamental conflict between meaning and its embodiment. A comment Horn made during an interview articulates how she views this conflict: “I see these objects that I produce as existing in a very impure world, fraught with entropy and dirt.” Within this condition of impurity, doubt announces its presence, as if Horn presents only a sheer physicality, leaving the duty of creating metaphor to the viewer.
An involvement in literature underpins Horn’s work. For this inveterate reader and writer, literature is inseparable from a personal language that embraces both visuality and linguistics. She says, “I think in terms of syntax if not quite of grammar; of phrasing, leitmotif, chorus—the tools of language structures—which then take a visual form in the work.” Her word-based objects make you sense how profoundly unmoored words are from the things/ideas/utterances they represent. These word structures blend the deadpan, linguistic factuality of Lawrence Weiner’s work with Robert Morris’s concept of wholeness, singleness, and indivisibility.
In the ’80s, Horn began making word pieces that attest to the difficulties of blending the literary with the sculptural by mating two inexact forms of knowledge transmission—the “tangible” and the symbolic. These conceptually bifurcated pieces consist of words borrowed from various poets and writers, including Stevens, Blake, Kafka, Poe, and Clarice Lispector, but Horn has a special relationship with the work of Emily Dickinson. At the start of the 1990s, she produced several sculptural series and individual works based on Dickinson’s correspondence, including How Dickinson Stayed Home, “When Dickinson Shut Her Eyes,” Untitled (Gun), and “Keys and Cues.” These objects are fabricated from gray aluminum bars inlaid with plastic capital letters: black letters for “When Dickinson Shut Her Eyes” and “Keys and Cues,” then fragments of white letters for the later “White Dickinsons” (2006–09). In the installation How Dickinson Stayed Home (1993), Horn spells out Dickinson’s phrase “MY BUSINESS IS CIRCUMFERENCE” using 25 cubes made of aluminum and blue plastic arranged on the floor. Three embedded-text works from 2007, again with lines from Dickinson, use plastic letters sunk into the metal so they are visible on opposing faces (with one in reverse), while the other two display the tops and bottoms of the letters in bands of different thicknesses.
The Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase “a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan” to emphasize the idea that an assumed impossibility might later be disproven. The metaphor of the black swan is particularly applicable to Horn’s large-scale cast glass sculptures. Conceptually hard to take in, these objects are oddly difficult to see and never perceptually stable. Given that Horn doesn’t think of herself primarily as a visual artist, this is not surprising: “A lot of my work is really very conceptual, and it has very little visual aspect to it, the sculpture especially. That work is more powerfully about experience and presence than it is about a powerful visual experience.” Like the black swan, Horn’s glass forms are a phenomenon, a refraction of the conventional idea of sculpture. Gestalt psychology’s notion of “just noticeable differences” dovetails with Horn’s creation of objects that seem identical but are, on closer inspection, slightly different in terms of color and texture. These approximate similarities, though typical of her work, are particularly characteristic of her glass pieces. Replication, as she says, “is a way to engage people…an artist is always manipulating. That’s the name of the game, really.”
Through light reflection and cast shadows, Horn’s glass objects implicate the viewer’s body and reflect the mutability and inconstancy of light and shadow. Their crudely textured exteriors are attractive enough, but they fall short of actual beauty. The element of doubt is especially strong in these sculptures, not only in the perceived mutability of their physical state, but also in their predominantly saccharine, anti-romantic use of color, where Horn’s conceptualism becomes overtly evident. The lure of the irrational lies in color, and Horn’s colors are divorced from form, nothing if not arbitrary, and totally lacking in reference to the natural world.
The industrial fabrication behind these works entails pouring molten glass into molds of various heights and widths, which results in unique objects that each take up to 10 months to cool and finish—each pastel gumdrop block weighs up to 10,000 pounds. Horn’s sculptures reveal the process of their making; seams from the molds punctuate the exteriors, creating individuation through slight but recognizable differences. The surfaces resemble hollow forms filled with water. From certain angles, the clear, fire-polished tops look like liquid, forming a concave lens like a meniscus, which inspires a desire to touch, to check the actuality of their nature. The viewer peers into them, seeing how light catches in the bottoms, which become strangely invisible when viewed from the top. Horn explains, “The glass is still just doing what it does when you take the mold away. I’m not going in and changing the look of it. What is on that top surface is what glass does: if you touch it, you find that the forms are very curved—by two inches or more.” The viewing experience and appearance of these works varies because Horn strictly mandates natural lighting. Absorbed and reflected light changes over the course of the day, with reflections shimmering in low light. As the bluish light of morning transitions to the warmer hues of midday and to the orangey tones of sunset, each piece is more or less saturated in color. Though stolidly immobile, massive, and silent, these cylinders and cubes evoke Horn’s lifelong fascination with water, music, movement, and reflection.
Her interest in water has manifested in four decades of travel to Iceland, multiple books, and Vatnasafn/Library of Water (2007–ongoing), a permanent installation created in Iceland for a former library in the small coastal town of Stykkishólmur. Identical, floor-to-ceiling glass columns hold melted ice that Horn gathered from 24 major Icelandic glaciers. Ranging throughout the interior and lit from above, they reflect and refract outside light, scattering illumination even as the sun sinks. Horn has said of this piece, “…there is a lot of humor in my work and a lot of absurdity, like the Library of Water. It’s ridiculous, but I was aware when I was doing it, too, that there was an element of necessity to it beyond me. What is scary now is that a number of those glaciers have disappeared.” The floor of the library is carpeted with a rubber mat bearing a field of words in Icelandic and English, all adjectives describing weather conditions. The collection of water is accompanied by an archive of weather reports gathered from people living in and around Stykkishólmur. Voices of these local weather observers can be heard in an adjacent room. Horn considers these verbal reports to be a “collective self-portrait” of the town.
Although these works involving water and water imagery raise political issues, they are not politically motivated. As Horn says, “Water is a mirror…when you see your reflection in water, do you recognize the water in you?” As global warming advances, clean water is becoming a black swan, “a rare bird.” Using the imprecise vocabularies of literature and aesthetics, Horn’s work embodies the essential conflict between idea and phenomenon, laying bare transformation, loss, disappearance, and above all, doubt.