Horn received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and her Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 1978. She continues to question and explore through her work with a literary expression. Her solo exhibition “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn” has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate Modern, Arles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Her solo exhibitions have also been exhibited at many well-known art museums and institutions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna, the Fundació Joan Miró in Spain, the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt.
Ronnie Horn’s artistic practice has always revolved around issues such as the relationship between nature and humanity, identity, subject-object relationships, and gender. Over the course of her 40-year career, she has continuously questioned and explored these topics through various media, presenting a sense of uncertainty in her works. This ambiguity and uncertainty reflect the hesitations and struggles in identity recognition.
Horn’s first large-scale solo exhibition in China, “A Dream Dreamt in a Dreaming World is Not Really a Dream…But a Dream Not Dreamt Is,” is currently on display at the Shunde Art Museum. The exhibition features 50 groups of works, including paintings, videos, and sculptures, which create an uncertain encounter for the audience within the museum’s internal space. The exhibition also discusses the core themes of the artist’s many years of creation: identity, cognition, definition, and doubling.
The exhibition title, “A Dream Dreamt in a Dreaming World is Not Really a Dream…But a Dream Not Dreamt Is,” is taken from Canadian poet Anne Carson’s collection of poems, “Plainwater.” This theme reflects a paradoxical situation, where things often appear with their opposites, and duality always exists. Using Carson’s poem as an introduction, the audience is once again presented with an unidentifiable reverie. Although Carson only points out that the poem comes from ancient Chinese philosophy, it is unclear whether it is from Zhuangzi’s “The Butterfly Dream”: “Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” By treating life as a short and illusory dream, what if the dream is not a dream? How should we treat life then? Just treat it as a dream.
You Are The Weather
Identity Perception Projected by Weather
In 1975, at the age of 20, Roni Horn traveled to Iceland for the first time. Since then, she has regularly returned to this place, which holds a special importance in her creative work. The isolated environment, unique rugged landscapes, and ever-changing weather of Iceland have become a powerful source of inspiration for Horn. Her representative work, “You Are The Weather,” was shot in Iceland. She traveled with the protagonist of the work, Margrét, to various locations in Iceland and took a series of close-up photos of Margrét in different weather conditions. They took these photos in different natural hot springs and in constantly changing and unpredictable weather. In the pictures, we can see the young woman sometimes under the sun and sometimes under cloudy skies. Although she did not make exaggerated facial expressions, we can still see the subtle differences in each photo and the emotions conveyed. The anger or impatience conveyed by her facial expressions is sometimes influenced and determined by the sun or wind.
Ronni Horn, “You Are the Weather, Part 2” (partial), 66 color photographs, 34 black and white photographs, 26.1 × 21.4 cm each, 2010-2011
In preparation for this exhibition, Horn returned to the same location with the model from the original series in 2020 and 2021 to create a new set of works, adding a sense of time to the pieces and forming “You Are the Weather, Part 2” for the exhibition. As viewers enter the exhibition hall, they are surrounded by these photos. Although they are all close-ups of the same person, the audience knows nothing about her. This unknown element is what the artist is trying to convey – the openness and variability of identity. Horn captures these ever-changing moments with her camera. Whether it’s the changes in the model’s facial expressions or the emotions and identities projected and guessed by the audience, there is a sense of uncertainty. As her face rises again and again in the Icelandic hot springs, this inscrutable face does not reveal its inner core. Her appearance is more like an unsolvable mystery. What viewers can see are the constantly changing emotions and water droplets on her face. As Horn said, “It’s always the same face, but never the same. When you’re in the same room with her, your presence triggers these responses, and you become the weather.” While viewers are guessing about the character, they seem to be projecting their own desires and thoughts.
When Horn pressed the shutter button in different hot springs, she took 100 works in July and August 1994 and combined them into “You Are the Weather.” She played the role of a weather connoisseur, observing and using the extremely subtle changes in the weather to reflect the commonalities between its changes and the variability of human identity.
From left to right: Roni Horn, “And 9,” pigment powder, graphite, charcoal, colored pencil, varnish, paper, 286.1 × 246.4 cm, 2017/2020. Roni Horn, “And 10,” pigment powder, graphite, charcoal, colored pencil, varnish, paper, 312.4 × 260.4 cm, 2017/2020. “Roni Horn: Neither Dream Nor Reality” exhibition, 2023.
When Transparency is No Longer Transparent
Transparency is an Illusion
Ronnie Horn’s “Selected Gifts (1974-2015)” (partial), consisting of 67 inkjet printed photos from 2015-2016, explores the variability of definitions and perceptions, as well as the concept of doubling, which is a recurring theme in her work. Horn uses glass, a material with multiple definitions, to create her sculptures. When creating sculptures, she places the audience in a state of contemplation, considering the space and distance between the audience and the sculpture, as well as the relationship between the two, forming a juxtaposition. “Doubling” is a way to explore differences and identities. The definition of identity itself is also multifaceted, as identity can be influenced by location. The same object can have different identities in different locations. When two pieces of artwork are no longer placed together but instead are in separate rooms, the identity quietly changes. When the audience sees the first piece, it is unique, but when the second piece appears, the two pieces become identical objects, as the recognition of “uniqueness” only occurs once.
Since the mid-1990s, Horn has created a series of solid cast glass sculptures. Molten colored glass liquid is slowly poured into molds and slowly takes shape over several months of annealing, eventually solidifying into glass sculptures. The top of the glass sculpture is polished by flames, presenting a slightly curved smooth surface, clear and transparent like water. In contrast, the annealing process often leaves rough translucent marks on the sides and bottom of the sculpture.
The exhibition showcases several sets of glass sculptures, such as “Facing White,” “Double Water” series, “Two Pink Tons,” etc. They are mostly presented in pairs, distributed in various locations in the exhibition hall. This allows the audience to observe the interior of the sculptures and the external environment reflected on the surface of the sculptures from different positions and exhibition sections, thereby enhancing the focus on identity. Unlike the common practice of using artificial lighting in exhibitions, Horn chose to abandon the use of lighting to showcase the sculptures. She hopes that the sculptures can interact with the external environment, thereby generating more diverse feedback. Whether it is a sunny day or a rainy day, the sculptures can interact and converse with the external environment. They are placed in an eternal state of change, deviating from a single visual standard.
The duality and contradiction inherent in glass as a material is also a major reason why artists are attracted to using it for creation. In an interview, the artist stated that glass always appears in a solid form, but in reality, it is also a very cold liquid. When heated to a certain degree, it will become a liquid. From a chemical definition, glass is recognized as a liquid form, which is the paradox about the material that Horn is interested in. However, transparency does not make objects easier to recognize or easier to define in terms of identity. On the contrary, in Horn’s observation, transparency may make people more difficult to identify and create confusion. In her view, the concept of transparency can almost be considered an illusion. When the audience looks inside these works, what they see is an object that is both liquid and solid, an object with a dual identity.
From left to right: Roni Horn, “A Pair of Gold Carpet Cushions for Ross and Felix,” 1994-2021. Roni Horn, “Two Pink Tons” (detail), solid cast glass with frosted glass surface, two pieces, 22.9 × 101.6 × 152.4 cm each, 2008, Private collection, New York. Roni Horn, “i” (detail), 15 pairs of inkjet prints, cotton pulp paper (30 pieces), 22.9 × 101.6 cm each, 2008-2009. “Roni Horn: Between, Beyond, and About,” exhibition site, 2023.
In her recent works, Horn no longer pursues completely smooth and flawless glass surfaces, but instead leaves traces of the production process on the surface, such as the trace of a little liquid solidifying into a solid after being poured into a mold. Some traces produced during annealing are also preserved. When the surface is no longer transparent and clear like water, if transparency always makes you doubt and makes identity harder to define, does an object that is no longer transparent make identity easier to recognize? The answer may require each viewer to explore.
Horn always emphasizes the “experiential” aspect of exhibition viewing, both her own experience and that of the audience. When she enters an exhibition, she scans the room, finds works that resonate with her, and spends a lot of time with them, forming a unique connection between herself and the work. Horn’s works seem to hide accumulations in both vertical and horizontal aspects, converging at the intersection of the two to create a seemingly simple work that is actually condensed with meaning. Horizontally, she explores the impact and differences of identity and definition when the external environment and the relationship between the environment and objects change under a similar form of expression. The weight of time is a vertical factor. Whether it is sculpture, painting, or photography, it requires a long creative process, shaping memory. As the artist said, memory is a pairing—it is the other that diverges from the self.
Written by/ Lin Jiaxun
* Unless otherwise indicated
The images in this article are provided by the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.