• Archie Gibbs

Roni Horn 'Pi' Exhibition Review at University Museum of Contemporary Art, Amherst

In a tucked away section of UMass Amherst’s sprawling brutalist campus, the UMCA exhibited a key work by an internationally renowned artist Roni Horn. The New York based artist’s Pi is a succinct display of her relationship with the topography, community and sublimity of the Nordic country of Iceland. On a quest to visualise the theoretical ‘Arctic Circle’, she dispels mythology of the sublime nature and story through often conveyed in landscape reportage. Pi alienates me, an account of a scenery incomparable to the gallery’s surroundings. Horn conveys themes of cycles, escapism and the human/nature interaction in her signature poetic, literate mode.

The location and muse for many of her ecologically related works, Horn’s Iceland is the antithesis of her native Manhattan. Pi is a deeply personal photographical account of the island in an ostensibly random and non-sequential series, captured during decades of visiting to the island and completed in 1998.

The exhibition space itself is precarious; faux-concrete walls intersected by a rhythmic procession of unearthly landscapes, images of desolate houses, local residents and animals – all acting as vistas into the surreal representation of a country. The UMCA presents the work as a ‘sculpture’, one total work undefined by narrative or sequence and with the opportunity to experience a panoramic 360-degree view. This sculpture is viewable from all areas of the room due to its installation at 8ft tall. However, with the UMCA gallery usually vacant, there is an insidious, absent feeling attained when fronting taxidermy ferrets and abysses of water and rock.

Roni Horn, Pi (1997)

The aesthetic quality of the images themselves are not at question here. As a conceptual artist, Horn creates a fragmented reality of Iceland for the viewer to make meaning of themselves. The artist attempts to ‘draw the viewer in’ by fracturing narrative and story in Pi, though this assuredly loses some along the way.

The work toys with the notion of the sublime, a concept rooted in romanticism whereby humans (typically a man) conquers an awe-inspiring natural landscape fuelled by 19th C imperialism and enlightenment. Horn depicts this ‘sublime’, though not as the subject of human conquest but rather as a force and actuality contributing to and affecting livelihoods on the island. Whilst standing in an air conditioned, climate-controlled room in New England, I can view an expansive, breath-taking landscape without conquering anything – complicating the inspiration to strive usually attained from such romantic depictions of nature.

The work itself is perplexing to many at the gallery. I find that Pi operates better within the overall context of Horns oeuvre as shown at recent retrospectives in Tate Modern and Whitney Museum. It seems odd to simply show one single personal account of an artist in a region most students will have never visited and with little relevance to the student’s lives.

As great conceptual artists do, Horn offers more questions than answers. When engaged with thoroughly, this work propounds truth of photography, truth of nationality and truth of community in an extremely poetic way. That being said, in a vacuum the exhibition is somewhat out of sorts and could do with more contextualisation. Horn’s personal pilgrimage to the ‘Oz’ found in Iceland is undoubtedly fascinating, yet ultimately swings and misses in terms of engaging students with contemporary art with the UMCA being primarily an educational museum. The subtlety and lack of visual stimulation strategy implemented by Horn operates well in large gallery spaces, however within the UMass campus there is something left to be desired.

Roni Horn 'Pi' shows through 26th April 2020 at University Museum of Contemporary Art in Amherst, MA.