Imagining Water, #5: Is Water Sexy?

The fifth in a year-long series on artists who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Unlike many contemporary artists who have come only lately to incorporating the theme of water in their work, American artist Roni Horn has been exploring the nature of water for over 30 years. In her drawings, photographs, installations, writing and books, she has posed questions that challenge us to examine our own personal relationship with water as well as its universal qualities. In a 2005 interview by Art 21 on her works Doubts by Water, Same Thames and Still Water, Horn admits: “I never intended to have water in everything I do, but I almost feel like I rediscover it again and again. It just finds its way back into new work.”

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Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) – Image C, 1999. Offset lithograph (photograph and text combined) on uncoated paper; 30 1/2 × 41 1/2 inches. Edition of 7. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Since Horn is such a prolific artist and doing justice to all of her work (which in addition to water, explores human identity, ecology, landscape, weather and language) would require no less than a book (several do exist), I’ll focus here on two of her pieces that represent her attempt to define water’s elusive nature: (1) Saying Water, a 40-minute monologue that she created about the Thames River in London; and (2) Vatnasafn / Library of Water, a project in Stykkisholmur, Iceland in which she restored a town library building as a public space housing her own installations and a place for community gatherings and programs.

Saying Water

Horn wrote Saying Water in 2012 while she was staying in A Room for London, a riverboat installation sitting on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall overlooking the South Bank of the river Thames. Her residency was part of a larger project entitled Hearts of Darkness, in which artists and “stowaways” from other professions were invited to create something new related to the river and the project’s theme.

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Roni Horn reading Saying Water at the Louisiana Museum of Art, Denmark in May 2012. Courtesy of Louisiana Channel.

As she reflects on the meaning of the dark, opaque and dirty Thames river, Horn incorporates song lyrics (“Blah, Blah, Blah” by George Gershwin; “Down by the River” by Neil Young; “Take Me to the River” by Al Green; etc.) and stories of suicide, sex and murder that occurred in or by the river. She poses numerous questions: “When you talk of the water, are you talking of yourself or the weather?” “Is water sexy?” “What does water look like?” “Do rivers really ever end?” But primarily, she is developing a comprehensive and powerful vocabulary about water itself and its physical, sensual, spiritual and fundamentally unknown qualities. Here is just a small sampling of her powerful visual language:

Water is… everywhere differently, a spiritual presence, an intimate experience, half the sky, an act of perpetual motion, familiar but elusive, troubled or calm, rough and disturbed, quiet, clear, still, cold or hot, brash or brisk, soft or hard, foul or fresh, limpid or languid, sweet, agitated, unsettled, deep, clean or filthy, a utopian substance, powerful, vulnerable, fragile, energetic, the future, a plural form, a master verb.  

Water… reassures you, affirms you, shows you who you are, extends you out into the world, camouflages light, sighs, sucks, laughs, splishes, splashes, slashes, washes, murmurs, gushes, bubbles, babbles, shimmers, shines, gleams, twinkles, sparkles, blinks, winks, waves.

Black water… is always violent; it dominates; it’s alluring; it’s black milk; it’s life threatening; it’s mesmerizing.

Horn acknowledges the level of pollution in the Thames by imagining what the water contains: “not just the rats and sewage but the viruses and bacteria like hepatitis, dysentery, E. coli, biles and even a remnant of the plague… the polyphenols… the trichloral ethanes…” And at the end of the monologue, she proclaims that “when you look at water, you see what you think is your reflection but it’s not yours; YOU are a reflection of water.” Immerse yourself in Horn’s Saying Water here. Although listening once is great, twice or three times is better in order to absorb the full impact of her cadence and imagery.

Vatnasafn / Library of Water

Horn has a strong emotional tie to Iceland. Her first journey there was right after graduate school, when she traveled throughout the country by motorcycle. Since then she has returned again and again, ultimately establishing a residence in Iceland where she resides for part of the year, and incorporating its pristine landscape, changing weather, intense light and distinct geography as a major component of her work. In 2003, she began a long-term project to create a new identity and purpose for an existing library in the small town of Stykkisholmur, Iceland. Horn called it “the most beautifully situated library in the world,” overlooking the harbor and offering astounding views of the ocean and an overwhelming sense of sky, sea and weather.

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View of the water from Vatnasafn / Dictionary of Water, Stykkisholmur, Iceland.

Completed in 2007, the Library of Water contains three works by Horn: The first is a “bilingual sculpture installation,” a rubberized floor containing 100 inscribed words in Icelandic and English that refer to the weather, an integral part of life in Iceland. The second is a series of 24 floor-to-ceiling transparent columns filled with water from 24 of the major glaciers in Iceland that were formed millions of years ago and are receding at a rapid pace. The columns refract and reflect the light from the vast landscape outdoors, and create a sense of tranquility and peace within the interior space. The third work is a collection of stories on weather, a project that Horn undertook to record the memories of, and reflections on, weather from residents of the area in an attempt to capture its significance in their lives.

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Documentation of the location of the sources of water and placement of columns for Installation of columns containing water from 24 glaciers in Iceland, Vatnasafn Dictionary of Water, Stykkisholmur, Iceland.

Horn has written, spoken and created hundreds of works of art about water of all kinds. In contemplating the dirty Thames, she marveled that

…even in its darkness, it has this picturesque element. It’s something about the human condition – not the water itself – humanity’s relationship to water. So, in the end, it doesn’t make a difference what the water looks like. It will always have this kind of picturesque quality to it because that’s almost a human need – that water be a positive force.

(Top image: Installation of columns containing water from 24 glaciers in Iceland, Vatnasafn Dictionary of Water, Stykkisholmur, Iceland.)

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Susan’s latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. Susan is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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