"Roni Horn: Part II" at Dia: Chelsea
27 February – 16 June, 2002
When Roni Horn enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1970s, Clement Greenberg’s call for autonomy and medium-specificity in art was already attenuating under the systematic exploration of the conditions of reception initiated by minimalism. A decade later, Horn’s first solo show intimated her dedication to this exploration as well her interest in the diptych format. Five recent works at the Dia, installed in individual rooms, retain this format; more, they activate its latent linguistic dimension, at once advancing Horn’s – and her predecessors’ – project and renegotiating the post-minimalist turn towards political art.
The exhibition opens with This is Me, This is You (1999-2000), twin grids of forty-eight different photographs – close shots of Horn’s niece playfully contorting her features – diagonally facing each other. Seemingly identical, whereby the photographs of one grid are duplicated on the opposite wall, close inspection divulges discrepancies: a broader smile, a differently curled lick of hair. Yet because the grids cannot be apprehended simultaneously, these remain equivocal; they might be functions of our angle of viewing, or even refractions of light. This is what Horn does best: displace certainty with ambiguity, challenge the known constant by insisting on the contingencies of the present.
It is this insistence, too, that foregrounds the exhibition’s linguistic dimension. Specifically, “this,” “me” and “you” are shifters, words that acquire meaning depending on their immediate context (“me” refers to whoever at that moment utters it). Misspelled, Clowd and Cloun (Blue) (2001), likewise emphasizes the now; the title makes sense only when spoken – something that occurs fleetingly and instantaneously. More, just as work and viewer synchronize temporally, so do they spatially: thirty-two evenly-spaced rectangular and square photographs (respectively of clouds against a blue sky and blurred clowns) seamlessly encircle the room at eye level, collapsing pictorial and perceptual fields.
Like shifters, clouds and clowns are mute, passive signifiers that can accommodate a range of meanings. This muteness – evidenced in the tomb-like installations Untitled (Yes)-1 and Untitled (Yes)-2 (both 2001) – differs from the message-laden art of the ‘70s. Indeed, Horn’s works have often been read as apolitical and disengaged from everyday life. Yet as Denis Hollier has noted, following Sartre, engaged writing – and art – can also be defined “on formal or structural grounds, based on the respective position of writer and reader: they belong to the same time, to the same space.” And it is precisely this shared occupancy that the shifter insinuates, a point at which art remains a condition of possibility in which neither artist nor viewer have the upper hand.
Becoming a Landscape (2001), ten coupled images taken near Geysir, Iceland installed in the penultimate gallery, summarizes the exhibition: like the hot springs depicted, the works are open-ended and ever-present, always “becoming.” While the diptych format indeed emphasizes the gap between two positive fields, engendering a peculiar muteness, it also invokes the shifter’s capacity to fasten on to the absolute present – merging quite successfully, as it were, art and life.