Roni Horn works in a Brooklyn studio full of machined objects, drawings in progress and pink cone-shaped molds—the beginnings of new sculpture. On a table are photographs taken in Iceland, a location that has been an inspiration and key influence.
Mimi Thompson How did you end up choosing Iceland as a place to go?
Roni Horn It’s a question that I’m always asked and I don’t have a real answer for it. I once looked Iceland up in the dictionary and it fell between ice hockey and ice skating. That’s pretty much as controlled a choice as I made. But having gone there, there evolved a relationship that I couldn’t separate myself from. Each time I’d go, there would be engendered the idea to go back and back and back. I guess the real reason is the relationship to yourself that is possible in a place like that. There’s nothing mediating it. There is nothing to obscure or make more complex a perception or a presence.
MT And yet it’s highly dramatic.
RH The drama comes from its youth. The landscape is unique in that the geology is very young. It’s like a labyrinth in the definitive sense. It’s big enough to get lost in, but small enough to find yourself. There is little erosion and, as a result, unexpected symmetries exist in unexpected places. America has everything Iceland has, but it’s ten thousand, twenty thousand, one hundred thousand years older, depending on where you look. Growing up in a very “old” landscape—New York City—it’s origins are secreted from the present. I mean that the geological aspect of the landscape in New York City can only be experienced theoretically at this point. In Iceland, you understand empirically exactly what this place is: its what and how. That accessibility effects the nature of one’s experience, the experience of the world. Any place you’re going to stand in, in any given moment, is a complement to the rest of the world, historically and empirically. What you can see in that moment, what you can touch in that moment, is confluent with everything else.
MT Is this country a kind of armature for your ideas?
RH No. If you’ve been eating something for a long time or if you’ve been committing certain acts for a long time, they enter your vocabulary and you piss them out in a certain way. I think Iceland is something I’ve been consuming for a long time. How it effects what I do or my products—excrement or sculpture—is not in a particularly graphic way, but in a palpable and undeniable way. It’s definitely not a literal influence.
MT There seems to be a romantic notion in your work—a search for purity of form, of an ideal state.
RH I don’t know about purity.
MT Few of us do.
RH I see these objects that I produce as existing in a very impure world, fraught with entropy and dirt. But the impurity does not come from the dirt. That is, the world is also fraught with Plato, so to speak. (The world is a kind of hybrid or amalgamation of these forms. An impurity with pure elements.)
The dirt I am talking about is not just the literal debris of time, but the nature of circumstance which is the condition of things as they are. Usually this condition is extremely complex and less than ideal. I believe the objects I make must recognize these extremes actively and, to some extent, as the conditions of their existence. In the most recent installation, Pair Object VI: For Two Locations in One Place, two solid machined copper cones are dumped on their sides. What are normally the bases are now visible as two 13” disks, directly addressing the viewer’s descent into the space. Until the viewer is actually in the room, the two disks are present only as graphic two-dimensional forms: a circle and an ellipse, operating in three dimensional space.
These are objects to which the words platonic and pure would not be inappropriate. But that is only true if you consider them as objects in themselves. The installation of these forms reflects an acute awareness of circumstantial reality. In this sense, they cannot be taken simply as objects in themselves. There is also the issue of their being a pair.
That is, the pair form, by virtue of the condition of being double, actively refuses the possibility of being experienced as a thing in itself. The simple state of doubleness includes, as integral, the space or interval between. So twice over, this work insists on a recognition of circumstance. I completed a work last year which also uses the pair form: Pair Objects II: For Two Rooms. Two identical solid machined copper objects are placed in neighboring spaces. The viewer walks into the first room and sees the first object. Experienced as a unique thing. Walking into the second room, an identical object is present in an identical relation to the world. The viewer runs through a very complex narrative in real time which is the experience of the work itself.
Basically, I’m talking about things which are formally redundant and experientially cumulative. The narrative involves the recognition of uniqueness through the sequential experience of things which are identical. Then the subsequent and irreversible loss of the unique identity. Obviously the notion of being identical is a purely ideal one since when you have two things, no matter how perfect the identity, you always have a this and a that, a here and a there. In both pieces we’re talking about the critical role of relation in defining the form.
MT Is this pure/impure a romantic ideal?
RH My work certainly includes elements which might be understood as romantic. But the overall synthesis lies elsewhere.
Here in February 1989, if you look at most contemporary work, we’re talking about sculpture that is produced to fulfill the needs of domestic space to a degree that is not acknowledged. You have this highly-tamed, conventionalized context in which the art object is perceived to exist. The notion of domestic space accounts for maybe five percent of the options of the existence of space, so it’s possible that five percent of the work would address domestic space. That kind of pastoral comfort that’s offered in domestic space—that scale of events, that kind of inertia—my sculpture is rarely able to exist in those terms. On a physical level, if you think about sculpture existing in geological terms, which are the terms I think about (and I don’t mean that as a conceit), then we’re talking about a material, physical reality being present in the world of natural forces.
Getting back to the Pair Objects, these aren’t pretty shapes standing in a space and using material in an arbitrary way. The whole tradition of making attractive shapes with attractive materials—the bronze casting tradition—to name one, is really offensive at this point. This tradition strives for the same advantage over pragmatic reality that paintings achieve through their existence in a conventionalized space. But which is also part of their form. I am talking about a gross misunderstanding of sculpture. That is, the making of objects as merely things that have shape in three dimensions, but refuse the responsibility of existence in three dimensions.
MT Your interest in landscape has been about changing certain urban or architectural environments by, in your words, “resetting” the space. Do you ever think about working more directly with nature?
RH I think about what I have access to. Outdoor pieces interest me a great deal, but I refuse to produce objects which will exist for two to six months on budgets of $10,000. This is not something worth entertaining. And, for the most part, I rarely entertain competitive commissions as options because I feel that if you’re going to develop a form, the necessity for the form is also present. It means you must realize the work. It’s a piece of your identity.
MT It’s a piece of your time.
RH Yes, and it’s not a divorceable flirtation with a socially acceptable possibility.
MT So you see the need for the piece to continue for a long time.
RH In real time. I don’t care if it’s long or if it’s short as long as it’s real.
MT You wouldn’t work with materials that disintegrate?
RH I have—powdered graphite pieces.
MT But not actually in the land, in the dirt, in the landscape that involves you.
RH I think the longevity of the pieces depends on the object’s relationship to the world, but it’s actively chosen and actively congealed in this form. Its longevity is a product of consolidating these relationships. It’s not something that’s expedited by a political decision. The duration of a piece should not allow itself to be compromised by these things.
MT I agree with you there. But what I’m thinking about is your desire to get as close as you can to the source without anything mediating your relationship to the material. You want to get as close to the sun as you can.
RH Thoreau said that. And his life was really spent getting rid of any mediating element. I did this gold piece in 1982, a product of being a pawnbroker’s daughter. My father had a pawnshop in Harlem and it was an inventory of objects most of which were made of gold. The thing that was most impressive about my father’s gold was that it was just a very anonymous yellow metal. I could never reconcile it to the literary experience of gold, which was this material capable of splendor like Jason and the Golden Fleece. I never had the experience of gold.
MT It was a commodity.
RH It was a commodity, but it was decorative and you could alloy it with materials that would ultimately take away its identity. It had this image value which was never held up by its corporal reality. The gold piece was about taking away all of these civilizing corruptions that gold had gone through, whether being used as a surface phenomenon or as jewelry. My idea was to give back to gold its corporal presence, to let it be one hundred percent what it is. You’ve got this extraordinary material which is capable of existing in mundane reality. It’s not so platonic that it won’t admit to a very direct relation with natural forces. When it interacts with the sun, you get the sun as first experience, as an empirical reality. I understood Jason and the Golden Fleece when I did that piece, but I didn’t have that experience until I did that piece.
Back to the landscape—mall architecture is vernacular; mall as a landscape. Usually vernacular architecture is associated with indigenous materials. Now, however, we’re talking about a landscape dictated by social and political parameters. These things dominate the context.
MT The fact of architecture using indigenous materials isn’t really a factor now. Materials are global.
RH You have post-industrial indigenous now. Most petroleum products are coming from the Middle East. Salman Rushdie is affecting the price of plastics today. The vernacular encompasses the globe in a very literal sense in 1989. In the past, the notion of globe was a romantic gesture. That is, the experience of other parts of the world was largely a gesture of the imagination. People didn’t know what went on beyond their immediate surroundings. Kafka wrote Amerika out of this awareness. Even though it is a kind of comedy, his knowledge of the country is half fantasy. Obviously now, the media makes the distant near, and entirely visible. It gives concreteness and credibility to what is not immediately present. Now, we’ve really got it and I don’t think it’s romantic and I don’t think it’s quantitatively less.
MT Just radically different. So your choice of landscape as an inspiration and reference is really a political choice.
RH Yes, because I don’t see it as being about trees and dirt. I see it as defining what the identity of a given place is.
MT I was interested in the change in surface in these new pair—object pieces in contrast to the earlier lead pieces which were very handled.
RH The lead pieces are really one-on-one objects. They needed a shape that was unique in order to rid them of metaphor or to approach that. These pair objects are machined. They are quantitatively identical and qualitatively identical. And that is why I used machine technology, to create identical things. I have no special attachment to hand techniques or the use of advanced technology. The techniques are selected freely based on the form I am working with.
MT It’s about replication.
RH Yes, it’s about replication and identity, of being able to reproduce identities, but not infinitely. Although machining holds that possibility. It’s just about two objects and the space between them which is inseparable from them.
MT You’re starting with two instead of one denying one individual thing or a sense of oneness.
RH Yes, I think that’s true. With one object, its presence is emanating out into the world with it as its center. With two objects that are one object, you have an integral use of the world. You have the necessary inclusion of circumstance.
MT It’s like having two suns, two orbits.
RH Two s-u-n’s? Yes. There is a piece I did in 1986, When the How and the What are the Same, which is two spheres. The condition of the sphere is that you can approach from any point in space and still see the same thing. It’s pretty radical, conceptually. The other aspect of the sphere is that it’s actively a noun and a verb; it carries both identities. It centers and it is the center, simultaneously.
MT The viewer approaches your work from above. Usually, all the pieces sit on the floor.
RH There were the Post Works which are up above. They lean against the wall and all the action takes place up above. They’re all approached from the point of view of the average human presence. Things don’t exist unless you experience them. From the point of view of the maker, they all necessarily exist a priori. They are essential to the artist’s existence. These objects exist in very literal relationship to human presence, not without human presence; not in the making and not in the viewing.
MT So you really disagree with some of the basic tenets of minimalism?
RH I’m not attempting to discount it in my work. But, in many ways, my work is a criticism of minimalism. Using geometry isn’t enough to place it in the context of minimalism. The attitude towards making objects as separate from human experience is not one I can participate in. I don’t see geometry as an abstract or conceptual thing. La Fontaine said, “Shall it be a god, a table or a pot?” That seems to come to mind with pieces like the cones. My use of geometry and the geometries themselves are so mundane. It is their connection to circumstance — this adulterates the purity — make the geometry— of the world, not idealistically detached. There is a sense in which the cone shape I’m using now has no identity other than a set of proportions and a shape. It has no material reality. It has no analog in the real world. Its use value is the experience it provides for. As a human being, the epitome of use value is experience and this is your consumer product.