Roni Horn aka Roni Horn
Whitney Museum of American Art
The welcome mat laid out by Roni Horn and the Whitney, a collection of ninety-six color photographed portraits of the artist’s niece (This is Me, This is You 1998-2000) wastes no time with gentle introductions to the show’s primary theme. It would be difficult not to ask: “Who is that?” We are thinking about identity already. But this is too simplistic. Even for the conceptual cynics.
For Horn, it seems it is not enough to ask the intuitive questions about identity. It is about seeing beyond the constricted sightlines from which we have been conditioned to perceive of identity; that it is a constant distinction between people, things, places and ideas. To go beyond this Horn thoughtfully yet subtly asks us to consider the element of time as a factor within the identity equation.
In the work titled a.k.a. (2008-2009) fifteen pairs of photographs line the walls of one gallery. Each pair consists of a portrait of Horn, one of her in her youth while its mate depicts Horn as she approaches maturity. Carefully chosen, the body language in each image echoes the other, whether it be a slight head tilt, a cocked shoulder or a glint in the eyes, almost as a signal to the viewer that it is still her throughout, as the hairstyles change, as the face weathers, the overall appearance becomes more masculine. Through these images Horn has invited us to witness the fluidity of her own identity as she ages.
Presenting the often-overlooked element of time, and not pushing it on the viewer is a cheeky tactic. One that, for me at least, once figured out was quite rewarding. All of a sudden “I got it.” Or so I thought.
Figuring out the time component wasn’t enough. I was still searching for something within the identity equation. Finally, I had to let it go for a while. As I meandered through the second floor, passing the ninety-six portraits resting eagerly on the entry wall, I encountered selections from Bird. Six pairs of medium-size photographs taken of the rear heads of taxidermied owls, mallards and other fowl. In this gallery, as with a.k.a. it’s almost instinctive to read the collection by registering each pair as single elements that form a sort of narrative when (and if) pieced together. I hesitate to say that they form a story of sorts, but it’s difficult to deny that Horn is aware of our conditioned response to put together a story when presented with fragments. We make connections. It’s what we do.
And no sooner was I thinking this than the words serendipitously flowed from the mouth of a gallery guide to my ears: “when you see different kinds of work in a room, she is asking us to make the connection. That is really thoughtful of her.” Well, yes. It is thoughtful of her. Horn’s solicitation reminds us that seeing and looking are not mutually inclusive.
Take the great echoing expanse of the main gallery on the fourth floor. It’s almost too easy to miss White Dickinson (2006), six aluminum cast rods leaning tenderly against white walls. The white rubber text inserted into the broadsides quietly delivering opening lines from Emily Dickinson poems. Solemn lines express thoughts on perception, on being: “Nature is so sudden she makes us all antique”; “News of dying goes no further than the breeze, the ear is the last face.”
Because of the positioning, in order to fully view with the piece, you have to engage with it; to not let it’s statements end the conversation, but be the openers. Start a conversation.
Accompanying White Dickinson in the gallery is Pink Tons (2008), a 4’ x 4’ x 4’ sculpture of solid cast pink glass. In this room, where I felt to get swallowed by the coolness and calmness of my sparse surroundings there was no doubt a lot of room to think.
While Roberta Smith assigned the pairing of these two pieces as the embodiment of Horn’s “penchant for hushed preciousness”, I don’t think the undertone here can be so easily summarized. It’s difficult to pin it down, but in the end, does it really need to be pinned down? It’s a process of looking with your mind and feeling through the ideas by connecting elements with which you have very little acquaintance. You are now a participant in the conversation.
The intersections of time, connection, and the exploratory process of reevaluating our concepts of identity seem to be at the crux of Horn’s retrospective. It certainly is a lot to think about, and it definitely is not easy.
However excited I am for the reminder and the challenge Horn has presented, I cannot escape the feeling that this overall message can be lost in the directives coming from Horn: “see those, read this, move your body through this space.” But maybe we need a little push, hushed coaxing to wake up our sensibilities. Or maybe it’s too much to take in at once. Connections surely will be missed. I am certainly still considering the relationships. Still contemplating the possibility that identity is not a constant fixture.
As an experience, I would liken the show to a personal ad. File it under missed connections:
You: the prominent retrospective of a living artist; works spanning 30+ years; garnered the love and adoration of curators and theory-phile intellectuals.
Me: but a humble neophyte to the realm of late-minimalism; perhaps a fan of large exhibitions that get a lot of press; maybe I’m the kind of audience member you love most: the true blood art lover – passionate and postulating wild sometimes fantastical explanations for why this and that are laying near each other, but ever careful not to overstep my boundaries for I know that you have intentions. You have created this experience for me. And so I digress. Can we meet up for a sip? Perhaps near the River Thames. Or perhaps, I don’t try too hard to see beyond what’s placed in front of me. I think that art is a tool for the practice of looking; you know using your eyes beyond just seeing? Making the connection between visual, mental and sometimes if I’m lucky, emotional pleasure or (also if I’m lucky) disdain. But in this narrative, I cannot reveal the truth. Because, in all honesty, I don’t know. At any given moment I occupy all or none of these identities.
The barrier of self-consciousness wasn’t quite breached the first time, but you’ve left me thinking and wanting more, so let’s give it another go.
Roni Horn a.k.a. Roni Horn Whitney Museum of American Art On view November 6 2009 – January 24 2120