Horn’s latest project in Iceland is Library of Water (2003–07), which houses an installation in a former library in the small town of Stykkishólmur. Glass columns hold melted ice from 24 Icelandic glaciers. Inscribed in the rubber floor are words such as “cool” and “moist.” “They’re all adjectives which could be used to describe weather conditions outside in the world,” says James Lingwood, whose Artangel organization raised money to produce the piece, “but also inside, you know, in you.” Though it will clearly go down as one of Horn’s iconic works, orchestrating it altered her relationship with the country, perhaps permanently. “I had kept very much to myself for years and was just out photographing or walking or thinking,” she says. With Library of Water, though, she couldn’t simply retreat into the landscape; it was a “social experience,” she says, that required her to deal with an extensive team of people—and intruded on her private communion. “I think my needs have changed,” she adds. “For me to hold on to that relationship to Iceland would have been making me a tourist of myself in a way. I can imagine going back, and I will, but it’s not like a yearning.”
In retrospect, Horn says, Iceland started to feel “less compelling” once foreigners started visiting in droves in the mid-Nineties. “Maybe a lot of Iceland was just about me being inexperienced,” she says. “I sometimes wonder if the first place I hit was Italy, whether Italy would have been my Iceland. Iceland is great for weather and solitude, but food is a problem. Italy is definitely more my thing for food.”
After her inaugural trip to Iceland, Horn worked for a year before matriculating at Yale for graduate school, “because I was very young,” she says, “and I was trying to, you know, get old. The problem with being precocious is that your connection is with the older generation because that’s your mental generation. You’re in this awkward relationship to your peers.”
At Yale she entered the sculpture department. “It’s not because I thought, Oh, sculpture, great,” she says. “I was always much more interested in painting. But I think when I went to Iceland, that helped me understand what my intuition was about. One of the things that interested me was that sculpture wasn’t a medium, and so you have pretty much all the mediums available to you, unlike painting. Painting is paint.” While at Yale, Horn also began her drawing practice, which she describes as “absolutely essential to me, although not to my viewer. My drawing was always about my relationship to it, not the audience’s.”
Artist Robert Ryman, whom Horn met at Yale, tipped off a German curator to her work. Ever since, she has had a stronger following in Europe. Until the September opening of London-based Hauser & Wirth gallery on the Upper East Side, she had been without New York representation for four years. Fiercely independent, Horn has self-financed much of her work. To raise the money to produce Gold Field (1982), a haunting sculpture of a micro-thin sheet of gold that, when folded over itself, gives off an orange glow akin to a burning flame, she admits she labored briefly for a “seriously shady” businessman. “The way I looked at it was, it would be worse if I wasn’t able to do this piece than to deal with the consequences of these actions if I should be caught,” she says. “I feel that these [artworks] should really be out in the world. Look, I didn’t have close to that kind of money to produce it, and I didn’t know anybody to ask for it. I had nothing. I just knew I had to do this.