Art that makes you do a double take: Roni Horn’s mesmerising sculptures in Hong Kong

  • American artist’s glass sculptures almost demand that you stand still and figure out what you are seeing – quite a feat in an age of mass attention deficiency
  • She worries that, in the smartphone age, ‘People’s minds have splintered to the point that they can’t remember from one second to another’
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 7:30pm

American artist Roni Horn has something akin to an illusionist’s ability to make you do a double take, stand still and figure out what it is you are actually seeing, which is quite a feat in an age of mass attention deficiency. It’s something evident in her new show in Hong Kong, a survey of her work that spans four decades.

The works on display exemplify the theme of androgyny, and show the diversity of materials that she works with.

Horn has said in the past that her gender-neutral first name gave her the sense from a young age that her identity was fluid. She has always resisted being pinned down by gender or sexuality, though she doesn’t hide the fact that she is in a relationship with a woman and her dapper dress style is what some would call androgynous, and worn with a swagger.

The androgyny in her art is not just about gender issues and who she is, she says. It is about the multiplicity of identity, as symbolised by the mesmerising blue glass sculptures showing at the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Central.

She first exhibited similar glass works in 2001, a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. “I had just got the technology to make glass the way I wanted, which was this [fluid-like] form. People keep asking me what’s inside. They think it’s water and you cannot convince them otherwise,” she says.

One of the blue glass sculptures is both untitled and has a long literary reference in brackets. Untitled (“There is perfect conviction in everything, as if the objects were better informed about themselves and the position they took up in the world. Here you don’t wonder. You don’t have a hunch. You know.”) (2014-16) is in a room lit only by natural light.

It is about a metre in diameter and shaped like a small, inflatable pool, with the top surface so smooth you dare not disturb it for fear of causing ripples. There is also a pair of blue glass cubes called Untitled (“Sometimes I think I resemble myself too much. I have always been someone else …”) (2010-2012) that also look like they are filled with water.

This is one of many pairings of images in the exhibition – a favourite device for Horn because of the ways it alters perceptions and turns the space between the two halves into part of the artwork.

The glacial blue of the glass evokes Horn’s long association with Iceland. The way the changing light outside reflects through the glass brings to mind one of her best-known Icelandic works, You Are The Weather (1994-5), which comprises 100 close-up photographs of a former girlfriend, Margret, her face reflecting the different weather conditions as they travelled through Iceland.

The Hong Kong venue is the opposite of the solitude and wilderness that made Horn fall in love with the Nordic country. The view from two of the upper floors of the H Queen’s tower is of a forest of high-rise buildings that conceal much of the overcast sky. Below, the crowd is so dense that Horn, who lives in New York, describes it as “impressive” because of its “monolithic quality”.

Still, while her glass works are “full of nature”, she says, she wants them to interact with the place instead of pretending they are shown somewhere with the same quiet quality that they emit.

The pieces are shown in the same rooms as long poles arranged in a way that requires extra effort to read the words printed on them. The words are lines from Horn’s favourite writers, Emily Dickinson and Flannery O’Connor.

“Hack Wit” (2013-15) is another series that reflects her love of language. For each work, she literally cut up watercolours that she’d done of two English figures of speech or proverbs, and then rearranges them so that the paired sayings interrupt each other and end up sounding silly and ridiculous instead of just being the stiff clichés that they have become. (One example: “happy as the world a clam is my oyster”).


Horn says her work may manifest complex ideas but she doesn’t want viewers to get so bogged down in them that they miss out on the fun. Her “Bird” photographs are a case in point. The pairing concept and ambiguity is there, but the dozens of pictures of the backs of birds’ heads are also meant to be taken lightly.

Double Mobius, v. 2 (2009/2018) harks back to a personal grief but even that, Horn says, should not be taken too seriously. It comprises two intertwining Mobius strips made with flattened strips of gold foil, which links it to Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix (1994). The earlier work features two flattened pieces of gold lying on top of each other, and she made it after her friends Felix Gonzales-Torres and his partner, Ross Laycock, died of Aids. It is one of the most intimate and moving eulogies in contemporary art.

She speaks of her time in Iceland almost as if it were a late friend; she says the country has become so crowded she no longer visits regularly.

“My relationship to Icelandic nature is very emotional. Seeing the threat posed by the population and tourism on this very fragile ecology makes me very sad. There’s no way you can parade 2 million tourists around that island without destroying something,” she says.

Her concern with contemporary issues such as the environment does not manifest itself directly in her works, but ties in with the kind of experience she wants viewers of the show to have.

She fears the human race is sleepwalking into irreversible devolution, caused by technology. “Smartphones are splitting people’s ability to focus. People’s minds have splintered to the point that they can’t remember from one second to another. They are like old people. This is a really radical change to me,” she says.

This is why she makes people stop and pay attention. It is not an option, she seems to be saying. It is the only way to stop our decay into the frenzied, blinkered existence epitomised by the crowds glued to their smartphones on the streets below.

Roni Horn, Hauser & Wirth Hong Kong, 15-16/F, H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central, Central, 11am-7pm, Tue-Sat. Until Mar 2.