Roni Horn's exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston challenges viewers to interpret her meaning.
In water reaching her shoulders, a girl with dirty blonde hair squints at the camera. In water reaching her shoulders, a girl with blonde hair looks puzzled. A girl with dirty blonde hair sheds a single tear.
Looking at 93 photos of this girl with dirty blonde hair, visitors at the Institute of Contemporary Art confront Roni Horn's fascination perhaps, obsession with impermanence.
Her fascinating obsessions with mutability, awareness and memory occupy nine galleries in the new exhibit, "Roni Horn aka Roni Horn," a comprehensive survey of three decades of work.
From the museum lobby to its fourth floor, visitors will see 53 generally intriguing, occasionally elusive and sometimes profound pieces of Horn's art, ranging from a 5-ton block of translucent glass to a colony of worm-devouring ants.
Along the way, they'll encounter sculptures, photographs, collaged drawings, artist's books and two sheets of glittering gold foil that evoke memories of love and death.
Horn's art presents interesting challenges that go to the heart of contemporary art: How to interpret an artist's meaning? How should we approach concept-driven art? If written clues are necessary to understand their work, have artists abandoned the public for well-financed exhibitors or buyers?
Simply, what to make of Horn's revelatory, challenging art?
Like puzzles, much of it requires viewers to tease out meanings by responding to repetitive arrangements of objects such as photos, bio-morphic forms or ordinary objects standing in for complex ideas.
Entering the lobby, visitors first see "Pink Tons," a 10,000-pound glass cube that shimmers a bit in the sunlight. Stepping off the elevator into the fourth-floor galleries, they'll walk into an installation comprising 8-1/2-by-10-1/2-inch photos of 93 slightly varied expressions by the same blonde girl. In the adjacent gallery, front and back closeup images of birds hang in an installation simply titled "Roni Horn, bird."
OK, no one visits the ICA expecting to see Frederick Remington's galloping cowboys and Indians.
Like the girl in the photos, Horn seems to be saying, "Figure me out."
It's definitely worth the effort. Lots of folks spend more time trying to decipher "Lost."
New ICA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth offered a simple suggestion.
"Look again. Look again. Look again. Look again," she said on opening day. "Never assume you know and you'll be rewarded."
That's great advice to view the work of this artist who, ICA Director Jill Medvedow said, explores "key themes of change, perception and memory."
She described Horn's works as "so devastatingly beautiful."
Opening the exhibit Tuesday, Medvedow said the ICA's location in Boston Harbor "where light, weather and water are continuously in flux" made it the perfect setting for a retrospective of Horn's evolving art. "(Horn's) work invites close observation and viewers are all the richer for the beauty and pleasure (her) art reveals," said Medvedow.
Born in New York in 1955, Horn earned bachelor's and graduate degrees at Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University. Her work has been exhibited across the U.S. and Europe. Horn, who has received numerous National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships, splits her time between New York and Reykjavik, Iceland.
"Roni Horn aka Roni Horn" was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in association with the Tate Modern, London.
Leading a tour, Molesworth said Horn's education and training influences her dual interests in making art that both embodies the "hands-on traditional skills" she learned at RISD and creating the "highly conceptual" art that was popular when she studied at Yale.
Observing the installation "You are the Weather," she said Horn often exhibits materials, such as the 93 images of the same girl, in inventive ways that expresses concepts greater than the objects themselves.
Without explicitly explaining it, Molesworth suggested the serial images of a girl's changing expression reflects Horn's fascination with the equally fixed and mutable elements of human identity.
She said Horn often employs seemingly ordinary objects or images to jolt viewers into "looking at things you're used to overlooking."
Some exhibits remain elusive without a helpful nudge from printed gallery guides that explain Horn's materials and conceptual intentions.
One installation, "White Dickinson," requires those hints.
It consists of several rods, leaning against a wall, that are made from cast plastic and aluminum that include short phrases molded through the piece that read, in one case, "Always start by degrees."
The card for this gallery titled "Roni and Emily" explains, "Horn is deeply engaged with language and literature" and often incorporates titles, quotes or references to authors and poems including, in this case, Emily Dickinson.
Sometimes the explanation veers from reasonable to as convoluted as the hidden formulas in "The Da Vinci Code."
Molesworth reasonably suggested Horn was fusing commonplace building materials and Dickinson's poetry. "She's making language physical. She's making language into an object," she said.
Continuing to discuss "White Dickinson," Molesworth said she "didn't like (the pieces) for a long time" until she had an "a-ha" moment that offered new ways to engage Horn's art: "They're leaning on the wall which means they need the wall. They need the museum. Duh! Roni's work needs the museum."
Would people "get" "White Dickinson" without reading the gallery cards like Cliff Notes?
However, viewers who like to apply such Zen-like, logic-twisting explanations will likely feel rewarded. Don't come looking for Norman Rockwell.
Horn sometimes makes objects that are simply stunning to look at. And she more often creates conceptual riddles full of buried meanings.
Sometimes meaning pops out like a jack-in-the box. Sometimes it never pops.
Placed at the edge of a gallery, a stainless steel piece titled "Asphere X" resembles a ball bearing with a 12-inch diameter. It is, in fact, not symmetrical.
Is it, as Molesworth suggested, an expression of alienation exemplified by a singular object in a world of matched pairs? You decide.
Nearby, the exhibit's most striking work, "Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix," consists of a two pure gold sheets, 60-by-49 inches and one-thousandths of an inch thick, lying somewhat crumpled atop one another. Set in front of a window, they shimmer when reflecting sunlight streams in from a window overlooking Boston Harbor.
By themselves, they are unusual and beautiful.
Molesworth explained Horn added the second sheet to an earlier single sheet of gold as a tribute to an artist whose partner had died of AIDS.
By combining the gold sheets, she suggested Horn completed the pair to commemorate the artists' love while creating a beautiful object that mutates in the harbor's changing light.
It's too easy to either dismiss Horn's complex art or gobble it up because experts say it's great.
Follow Molesworth's advice to "look and look again." Perhaps you'll see something you didn't know was there.
The Institute of Contemporary Art is at 100 Northern Ave., in South Boston.
It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for seniors and students; and free for members and children 17 or under.
Call 617-478-3100 or visit www.icaboston.org.