Journey to the Library of Water

by James Lingwood, 2007


My first experience of Roni Horn’s work came through her books of photographs and drawings and writings made in Iceland. And it was these books that offered me my first experience of the place. I came across Pooling Waters in 1994. The book has two volumes, one with a sequence of photographs of natural hot spots and modest swimming pools from around Iceland, and the other has an extensive collection of writings inspired by the artist’s experiences in different parts of the island. Then I found a copy of Verne’s Journey, published a year later. The book begins with aerial photographs of a glacier, Snæfellsjökull, where Verne’s travelers began their journey to the center of the earth, and eventually immerses the reader in the fury of a mælstrom.

The books are part of an ongoing work, sometimes called an encyclopedia, which has the title To Place. Conveying the quiet intensity and subtle energies of a long communion between an elemental island and an enquiring mind, they bring proximity to a distant place. Made by someone deeply committed to the uniqueness of the island, its geography and geology, climate and culture, they have something of the quality of a secular devotional, embodying a relationship to a place at once intimate and selfless. It is these very same qualities that lie at the heart of Roni Horn’s conception for Vatnasafn / Library of Water.

My first meeting with the artist who made these impeccable books took place a few years later in London. Roni had been working in the city on a series of photographs of the changing surfaces of the River Thames. There was some talk about a project in England. But in time the talk turned from England to Iceland and the possibility of Roni making a specific long-term project on the island.

Initially, the idea involved something of a mental leap for both of us. For Artangel, since our sphere of activity had hitherto been projects for specific sites or situations in London or occasionally elsewhere in Britain; and for Roni since she had kept the art world at bay from her island, carefully guarding the delicate ecology of her intimate relationship to the place. For three decades now, Iceland has been for her “an open-air studio of unlimited scale and newness”, a place where she could lose herself and find herself and which she would share, through her work, with others at another time and in another place. Gradually the idea of a project in Iceland developed its own sense of urgency. For Roni, it was an opportunity to conceive a place which could incorporate many of her abiding artistic concerns – with language and material, water and weather, reflection and illumination, the elusive nature of identity – and to offer something enduring back to the island which has given her so much since she first visited as a young arts graduate in the mid-1970s. 

In the autumn of 2003, I visited Roni for the first time in her open-air studio. After a day in Reykjavík, we set off on a road trip together. Not far out of the city, where the disappointing suburbs had been left behind and the grandeur of the landscape had begun to unfold, I saw a rainbow and asked Roni to pull in so I could take a photograph. She confidently told me that we would see better rainbows and drove on. And we did, many of them, on that and subsequent days. 

We drove west, towards the Snæfellsnes peninsula where the photographs for the Verne’s Journey book had been taken. We stayed in a turf-covered hostel, close to a raging sea. I saw lava fields with their infinite variety of grays and greens, countless fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls, and black mountains every bit as dramatic as the books had suggested. I was introduced to the natural modesty and reserve of Icelanders, living on the edge of such an implacable landscape. And I experienced something which the books could only ever suggest but which would become central to the project: the intensity of the ever-changing light and the inescapable presentness of the weather.

The next day we were heading up to Akureyri, on the north of the island, where she was installing an extended series of photographs of the River Thames flowing through a new building at the University. We stopped en route in the small town of Stykkishólmur and visited the library on the hill overlooking the harbor and town on one side and the ocean on the other. The architecture of the library was distinctive and its situation at the high point of the town striking. Overflowing with books, it was nonetheless clear that the library offered panoramic views of the ocean and the constantly changing sea and sky outside.

Roni had heard that there were plans to move the books to another building in town. Not long after our visit, she introduced herself and some initial ideas for the library building to the mayor of the town (she wrote about “the most beautifully situated library in the world”) and not long after that, I introduced Artangel as an organization committed to working with her and with the community to realize her ideas for a new life for the library. 

At the heart of the proposal was the renewal of the building as a public space, offering at one and the same time a sculpture installation, a place for quiet observation and reflection and for community gatherings and exchanges of different kinds: chess classes, readings, recitals, community meetings. A modest and generous place, full, not of signature artworks claiming the place as hers, but of possible experiences for visitors enabling the place to be theirs. Roni imagined Vatnasafn / Library of Water as “a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light.” 

The plan involved enlarging the windows looking out west to the ocean, and clarifying the space with the semi-circular windows looking over the harbor and to some islands beyond. A “bilingual sculpture installation”, a specially made rubber floor holding a field of words in Icelandic and English was laid down; inscribed into the floor in a lighter colored green the words, all adjectives, lie in wait for the visitor, ready to attach themselves to a mood or an emotion, inside or outside.

In addition to the field of one hundred words in the rubber floor, the building houses two other collections. Over the course of a year, blocks of ice were gathered from twenty-four of the major glaciers and glacial tongues in Iceland, formed many millennia ago and now rapidly receding. The collection of water, melted from the glacial ice, is housed, transparent and still, in a constellation of glass columns which flow through the interior, reflecting and refracting the light outside.

Subtly lit from above, they illuminate the interior as it becomes dark outside. The ceiling-to-floor columns are all the same size, and the water they hold appears to be the same. The sediment at the bottom of each column differs however, offering a variety of different micro-landscapes observed by the kneeling viewer through a convex watery lens. 

The collection of water is accompanied by an archive of weather reports gathered from people living in and around Stykkishólmur. The library stands on the very same place where the first regular monitoring of meteorological conditions in Iceland was undertaken by the most famous son of the town, Árni Thorlacius in 1845 – something which Roni described as “a serendipitous coincidence” – and the voices of the local weather reporters can be heard in a small room adjacent to the sculpture installation. The collection of weather reports, a “collective self-portrait” conceived by Horn, was serialized in the national daily newspaper Morgunblaðid, and published in a book entitled Weather Reports You, in separate editions in Icelandic and English.

Beneath the columns of water and the field of words and the murmuring of the weather reports lies another part of a private studio for invited writers, a “room with a view” where the daily struggle of aiming language at experience can continue in the place where the books of the library were once stored. The inaugural writer in residence, Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir spent the best part of a year in the studio, completing the libretto for an opera and beginning a new work of fiction, as well as being the catalyst for a range of events and the Lucky Luke Film Club. In 2008, Rebecca Solnit spent several weeks in the studio and traveled widely around the island, and in 2009 Anne Carson is making a collaborative work with students from the high school at the nearby town of Grundafjörður based on the myth of Prometheus Bound with its fiery conclusion. 

Not far from Stykkishólmur and Grundafjörður is the volcano of Snæfellsjökull where Jules Verne’s fictional travelers began their journey to the center of the earth. In one of her many pieces of writing inspired by the experience of Iceland, Horn stated “I come to this island to get at the very center of the world.” Vatnasafn / Library of Water offers a new center on the edge of this remarkable island which since its opening in May 2007 has gradually taken on a life of its own. The place has developed its own patterns of use, with a gentle flow of visitors through the summer months and occasional readings and concerts. In the winter, the flow of visitors both from Iceland and beyond slows but the interior is always accessible for solitary visits and communal exchanges.

Roni Horn has written that “weather is a metaphor for the atmosphere of the world, for the atmosphere of one’s life: weather is a metaphor for the physical, metaphysical, political, social and moral energy of a person and a place.” The same could be said of Vatnasafn / Library of Water. It embodies Roni Horn’s secular vision for a place of enlightenment and her deeply ethical view of how a work of art – in this case an open, public place – can be conceived and experienced.

This commitment to a physical, metaphysical, political, social and moral energy reminds me of another independent figure who also traveled from a teeming metropolis to spend time in a quieter place. In the middle of the nineteenth century Henry David Thoreau withdrew to a cabin beside Walden Pond to live as simply as possible and see and think as clearly as possible, unconstrained by convention or the compromises of polite exchange. 

In a powerful passage in Walden (1854) Thoreau implored his readers: “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn… It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.” (p. 134) I believe this is what Roni Horn has achieved too, in the library of water overlooking the sea. She has affected the quality of the day.

Image: (above) Looking out of the window of the Library of Water, Roni Horn (2007). Photograph: Stefan Altenburger