Friday, August 18, 2006

Roni Horn at the Art Institute

Roni Horn at the Art Institute
Originally Posted on Panel-House: September 2004

For this installation at the Art Institute we pulled our resources into a group article featuring myself (Terence Hannum), Mary Gustaitis-Beyer, Ruba Katrib, and Britton Bertran reviewing Roni Horn's exhibit.

Mary Gustaitis-Beyer

Roni Horn’s installation at the Art Institute is as unusual as it is good. Throughout the modern and contemporary wing of the museum, Horn has installed 80 photographs of the Thames River. By choosing this installation method, Horn leads visitors on a similar path to that of a river’s course. While this is interesting, what makes the arrangement more provocative is its placement among a top echelon of artists. Horn’s installation is identified by wall text and brochures throughout the installation - but not by each picture. Therefore if you haven’t been paying attention to it, you’re going to be mighty confused when you see a beautiful, yet random, picture of water next to a Picasso, Bonnard, or Leger. Did Rothko dabble in photography you might wonder? Viewers, when puzzled, automatically seem to search for a wall label, and Horn’s installation proves there isn’t a need for one. Her work, as with many others, can be hindered and complicated by the presence of text since it leaves no time for the viewer to have their own take on the work, and in fact, making up their opinion for them. Horn tries not to give us this easy way out, as we follow this Easter egg type hunt through the museum, her photos hold their own. I found myself only searching for photos by Horn, and ignoring everything else. Breezing through the museum, I found works everywhere, by the elevator, in the hallway, I almost tripped down a flight of stairs. The works add freshness to the galleries and oddly enough fit in every room reminding us how pleasing just looking at art in a purely visual way can be.

- Mary Gustaitis Beyer

Britton Bertran

Roni Horn’s photography project Some Thames, 1999-present, is the latest in the Art Institute’s Focus series. Focus is an ongoing presentation of contemporary artists whose work is usually resigned to the back rooms of the tiny contemporary art enclave. This exhibition however, ventures out to around a quarter of the museum creating an experience ripe for interpretation. This includes non-traditional spaces like the coatroom, the pencil-only Ryerson Library and the Gunsaulus elevator room. A cache of the photographs also graces the contemporary art wing, but the majority of the serial works occupy multiple rooms in the modern wing of the second floor.

The work itself is a series of eighty rectangular close-up photographs of the Thames River of London taken in different seasons, light and angles. The result is a refracting personal meditation on the artist’s own investigation of the role that nature and the self play in coalescing and/or departing. Concisely, this is a project that uses the metaphor of water to question the transition of space and history. The work embraces the concept of validating anonymity and stagnancy through the function of a transparent society. They are undoubtedly beautifully conceived and executed.

It is the intervention of the Thames itself, outside of Warhol’s Mao-protecting wing of contemporary art, upon the rest of the museum, which is irksome. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but partaking in this scavenger hunt created feelings from fascination to cumbersomeness and back again. Further enhancing this queasy feeling is “the pointed absence on institutional critique” that the curator, James Rondeau, firmly assures us of in the accompanying exhibition handout.

I should have never read this in the first place but the handout is vital to the exhibition. It contains anecdotes, histories, and philosophical musings of the artist that are that are an important extension of this exhibition and highly worth reading. Whether or not the artist or curator intended this intervention as “a reflection [rather] than transgression”, mockery abounds. Inevitably this is at the expense of the other works of art, artists, spectators and the institution itself.

The placing of “Some Thames”, in all its apparent opacity, reflectivity and abstract glory, is rather strongly reminiscent of a kind of hifalutin “Trading Spaces”. By uprooting some art completely and repositioning others, the photographs have a resolute manner of taking their cues from the hands of the institutional curator alone. This is his job, but to do so in a thinly veiled manner is pointedly egomaniacal. Consider: How many times did those poor mokes in the coat check room want to throw themselves in the wet darkness of that river? Did a conservative republican from Wilmette stare at the kinky Balthus’ “Solitaire” a wee bit too long? And the velvet ropes than line the walls of the galleries? Some are embracing the Thames as though its likeness has always been there, while others ignore it completely.

So “Blah, blah, blah…”, to grossly paraphrase Roni Horn’s excellent exhibition at the Dia Center in 2001, what this experience boils down to is the crux of what an intentional institutional critique defines. “Some Thames” metaphorically recapitulates an institution’s effect on societies past, present, future and the commodities therewith in. Ultimately, the Thames River and the Art institute of Chicago are both repositories and harbingers of this not-so-new concept. Coming clean is another story and one that makes this scavenger hunt worthwhile - no matter which way the pendulum swings.

Britton Bertran is an organizer in Chicago

Ruba Katrib

Framed photographs of water (photographs of the Thames River in London to be exact) are dispersed throughout the Art Institute of Chicago’s Contemporary and Modern exhibition halls. “Some Thames”, a photographic project done by Roni Horn in 1999 is currently exhibited in conjunction with “Saying Water”, a spoken word piece about the river composed by Horn.

While the ideas for the pieces are evident—the historical river, water’s movement through time, etc.—the manner in which the photographs are hung throughout Art Institute is perplexing. The text and photographs are connected to one another; once dispersed among other artworks that span the last century, the photographs lack the necessary support of the text.

The exhibition program avers that the photographs, when juxtaposed with other artworks in the museum, function as mirrors, allowing a stylistic comparison to be made between the different art objects. While interesting, this concept does not call for a photograph of water in a white frame next to a Pollock, Matisse, Balthus, or even a Cindy Sherman. Qualities of reflectivity and movement of water function as lackluster one-liners once they are literally applied: images of water “flowing” through the museum, images of water “reflecting” other artworks.

The critique of the institution as expressed in the accompanying exhibition program (the only place where you can find the transcription of the spoken word piece) is absent. Contrary to the program the photographs seldom encourage reflection nor successfully blend in with the rest of the museum. In fact, they stick out like sore thumbs, resulting in general confusion. Beyond the visual interruption, it’s also hard to ignore the cultural invasion of the Thames River, now running throughout the Art Institute.

“Some Thames”—what may have been a cogent exhibition—instead looks like a contrived exercise in unconventional curatorial practices. Lacking institutional critique where one should be present and the treasure hunt method used to hang the artwork result in negation of any coherence the photographs and text may have achieved otherwise.

(Ruba Katrib is the program coordinator at Three-Walls a Chicago residency and gallery program.)

Terence Hannum

“The color of water (whatever it is) changes constantly. Half of it is the sky.”

At first this exhibition annoyed and then, after the brochurewith the text “Saying Water” was discovered, it came together. That lasted about one week when the images dispersed through-out the Art Institute’s Modern and Contemporary wings became eclipsed by the portable texts. The compiled texts of what curator James Rondeau describes as “anecdotal observations, philosophical musings, and historical annotations relating to water” succeeded by being transportable and less didactic of a read than the photographs. Not that the contemporary wing is adept at exhibiting photography anyway just look at the cumbersome Cindy Sherman next to the meandering Wolfgang Tillmans.

Even the images in the brochure come off with more strength than when placed next to a Pollack due to their direct correspondence to the blurbs about water and rivers.

“Water is always an intimate experience, even as rain or ocean or river”

“When you photograph water you strip it of its form: of its restless, liquid reality.”

Of course bodies of water are a popular subject in contemporary photography from Hiroshi Sugimoto, Michael O’Brien, or James Welling. Roni Horn’s exhibition can also find a curious lineage to a previous exhibition at the Art Institute “Manet and the Sea”. In Horn’s texts the point gets made about the elusive forms of water, the lack of general color, and the constant change. These are points that the photographs deny and that horn admits saying in her brochure that “Looking at an image like this you may never get to the idea of water at all”. In fact you don’t and there are plenty of other photographers who do it better. It is “Saying water” that emerges as a fluid, as a compilation of changing opinion, that comes closer to engaging the properties of water.

-Terence Hannum


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