Thaw points

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

It takes hours behind the wheel from Iceland's Reykjavik airport, crossing a craggy moon landscape of lava fields and mountains in black rainstorm conditions to reach artist Roni Horn. There, about 1.5 degrees latitude south of the Arctic Circle, she's reclining on the grass in warm sun.

'This is more like Florida to me,' she says, blinking through her glasses. Life this far north is surely meant to be a bit colder than this.

The New York artist is in the country, which she has visited many times since the 1970s, for her latest project, the Library of Water.

The Earth's extremities have always had an allure for explorers - and artists have usually not been far behind.

Photographer Frank Hurley accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his bid to cross the Antarctic in 1914. Shackleton's ship, Endurance, was broken up by pack ice and his men were lucky to escape with their lives, but Hurley set to work regardless and captured sublime visions of the sinking ship while they waited to be rescued.

Hurley's photographs were cries of defiance. The north and south poles are much easier to reach these days, and with the ice-caps melting, the artistic response is more likely to be regret for humanity's conquering spirit.

Horn is hardly the first to head to the globe's extremes for inspiration. Writer Ian McEwan and artists Rachel Whiteread and Pierre Huyghe are among those who have visited the Antarctic in recent years. But Horn may be the most devoted: she has been coming to Iceland to make art since she left university in 1975. And she may be the first to have created there a permanent work of public art that addresses climate change.

The Library of Water, or Vatnasafn in Icelandic, is situated on the brow of a hill in the western coastal town Stykkisholmur. At heart, it's an archive. Housed in the town's old library, it comprises 24 glistening tubes of water that descend from the ceiling like a phalanx of stalactites and contain hundreds of litres of water tapped from the island's glaciers.

A pale, khaki-coloured rubber matting covers the floor. Cut into it are words in English and Icelandic could describe both people and weather ('foul, torrid, sultry ...'). It's a place to document where weather and humanity meet.

'There are all kinds of water in Iceland,' Horn says. 'Hot water, glacial water, fresh water springs, salt water ... everything. But it occurred to me that the glaciers were the key water, the old water, and so I decided to get the key glaciers of Iceland, and the ones that are in danger of disappearing - like Snaefellsjokel, which is the glacier-covered volcano that Jules Verne identified as the entrance to the centre of the Earth.'

The frozen poles ought to offer powerful material for creative types, but making art from the imagery of ice isn't easy. Epic, icebound landscapes don't convert easily into images. Missing, inevitably, are the infinite horizon and the fierce cold. Horn's solution seems to be a happy translation. Walking over her mat of words is a wistful joy and her cluster of columns glint attractively, bending the world around them into flexing arcs.

Whether it succeeds as art is uncertain, but Horn's ambitions for the library seem to stretch beyond that realm. The project is a new beacon for the organisation that commissioned it. Artangel, a London-based public art group, recently established a fund to enable it to launch projects overseas and Horn's is its first fruit. But the library will also be a beacon for locals, for whom it will serve as a community centre, a place for chess matches, yoga classes and readings by a new writer-in-residence who will be installed downstairs.

Horn hopes it will provide a catalyst for discussion about environmental change in Iceland. Although the islanders live in an area of the world that environmentalists are concerned about, they often feel that there are too few of them to make any significant impact on change one way or the other (the population is 300,000).

'The only reason Iceland isn't destroyed is because the population is so small,' Horn says. 'They're completely lethal as far as the environment goes. I think the weather has stopped Icelanders from destroying themselves. Now that it's nice, it's getting scary.'

Recently, the islanders seem to have become more conscious of their environment, in response to the arrival of a series of large aluminium plants. Horn has joined many locals - including the mother of singer Bjork- in speaking out against these developments, particularly in the Highlands, an area of Iceland's interior that's considered to be Europe's last wilderness. Horn says she can't understand why the islanders won't stand in the way of damaging change. 'Why would you have to go into the heart of Icelandic culture - in my mind, this symbol. You don't even have to go there, it's just so exquisite.'

She hopes the library will offer an environmental reminder to locals and the world. The library is, ultimately, a kind of memorial weathervane. Just as the weather is an important part of our lives, so it also, somehow, reflects us.

Horn commissioned a series of interviews with locals about their experiences of the weather that will be published as a book and form the basis of a developing archive on the library's website.

'With that idea of talking about the weather and talking about yourself, a peculiar kind of reflection occurs,' she says. 'Some people ignore the weather, but people get killed on the ocean all the time here and I think there's a stoicism that the weather has enforced on the people.'