Roni Horn

Posted on February 25, 2013

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Roni Horn is an American artist who works in a range of media including photography. Her photography has relevance to my own because she makes frequent use of multiple images of her subjects to explore issues of personal identity and how this is (or is not)  represented by the photographic portrait.

In You are the Weather Horn’s installation presents 100 photographs each of which is a headshot of the same young woman (Margrét Haraldsdóttir Blöndal). In each,  she is submerged up to her neck in an Icelandic hot spring. Each photograph was taken on a separate occasion and we are invited to link her expression to changes in the weather. The photographs were shown at an exhibition ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn’ at the Tate Modern in 2009. In the installation the photographers were arranged in a line around the room. See here.

You are the Weather by Roni Horn (Book Cover)

You are the Weather by Roni Horn (Book Cover)

A viewer  in the centre of the gallery  had 100 pairs of penetrating eyes looking at him/her. The Guardian review of the exhibition at the time describes how the young woman returns the viewer’s gaze ‘with expressions by turns sour, candid, squinting (cruel, bitter, stormy?) and sometimes, yes, murderous.’ (Jamie 2009). Horn’s photographs cause the viewer to look, think and look again. They also challenge the notion that identity is fixed and immutable and that one can read character from a portrait ( a recurrent theme on this blog!). Faced with 100 different portraits of the same person, how does one distill from this their ‘inner self’?

A second series which employs the same technique of using multiple portrait images is This is me This is you. In this work Horn shows two grids of photos each showing  48 portraits of the artist’s niece Georgia when she was about 10. The images  which are close up headshots are playful and have the look of family snapshots. At first sight the photographs in each of the grids look identical, but in fact Horn made two exposures of each shot a fraction of a second apart. So each grid is made up of unique photographs. There are subtle but perceptible differences between the equivalent photographs in each of the grids.

With this work Horn is once again referring to the complex nature of identity. In an article on the ART IT  website she explains her approach with this work as follows: ‘Portraiture seems to me a meaningful form, so I keep coming back to it. This is Me, This is You is not a portrait of Georgia, it’s a portrait of someone discovering herself. Girls try on their identities at a certain age, go through a lot of testing and looking at themselves’ ( Naomi 2008) There is an interesting video interview with Horn about this work here.

Horn’s series Untitled (Isabelle Huppert) 2005, captures this iconic actress in many different moods as she plays several different characters. In each sequence, the actress performs as one of the characters she portrayed on screen – Erika, Lena, Claire, Charlotte, Dominique, Jeanne, Mika, Isabelle, Marie, Emma, Beatrice and others. Once again the question of whether the face can reveal character is challenged. In this case the personalities photographed do not exist in reality but only in the film. The photographs which are displayed in rows of five can be seen here.

Although it could be questioned as to how relevant the work is for my own studies I could not let this review of Horn’s photographic work and without making reference to a work of her’s which really interests me. The work in question is Cabinet of . The original work she describes as a ‘portrait of a clown’s psychology‘.  It comprises of 36 colour photographs of the face of a clown. The clown has white face make up and large red lips and nose. The photographs were made with long exposures so the expressions which the clown makes are blurry. Despite being unable to read the clown’s expressions in detail, not only because of the make up but also because the images are blurred, the viewer is still compelled to make judgements about what the faces are telling him/her. The work is amusing on one level but also raises serious questions about the authenticity of character. The clowns can be viewed here.

Cabinet of by Roni Horn - the psychology of a clown

Cabinet of by Roni Horn
– the psychology of a clown

With her use of multiple images it is as if Horn is challenging viewers to analyze their process of looking at portraits and how they react to them. This is something which has occurred to me about my own 45 Seconds… work. The similarity of the photographs in the diptych’s engage an instant reaction of ‘why has the photographer/artist presented two identical photographs?’, but on closer inspection this is shown not to be the case. It is my hope that this will cause viewers to engage with the photographs and to think about the issue of facial expression and personal identity. 

In much the same way as for Bettina von Zwehl, I have come across Roni Horn’s photography very late in my exploration of portraiture. In reality however had I not moved down the path I have with my work, I most probably not discovered them at all. What I learned from Roni Horn is that there are many ways in which one can explore the questions of identity and of whether  a portrait can or cannot represent the ‘inner self’ of the subject. I have also now recognised that challenging viewers to analyse their process of looking and their personal response to works of art can be an integral part of (and indeed one of the principal aims of) an artwork. Her innovative ways of showing her work are also very interesting and provide food for thought on how I show my own work.

References

Jamie K. The Weather Woman The Guardian Saturday 14th March 2009 Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/mar/14/roni-horn-tate-modern-exhibition [Accessed on: 25th February 2013]

Naomi M.(2008)  On This is Me. This is You. ART IT Website Available from: http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_interviews/cSkBHVwTlryxJ5fIOYv3/?lang=en [Accessed on: 25th February 2013]

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