Loving Roni Horn’s “Vatnasafn/Library of Water”

Roni Horn imagined Library of Water as a place for quiet observation and reflection, "a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light."
Roni Horn imagined Library of Water as a place for quiet observation and reflection, "a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light."

Stykkishólmur, Stokkseyri, Stöðvarfjörður, all names of Icelandic places starting with “St.” Like an English adjective applicable to me.

Planning our trip to Iceland, I stupidly screwed up on visiting Roni Horn’s “Library of Water”—what I most wanted to see in the entire country. 

We were in Stykkishólmul without me realizing “Library of Water” was just up the hill from where we ate lunch and waited for the ferry. Only a few days later when we were on the other side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula did I realize my faux pas. Naturally Magellan was understanding and had ideas for reconfiguring our trip—which is why I’m posting this story for our Valentine’s Day blog. 

From the time Roni Horn visited Iceland in 1975 at the age of nineteen, her first trip away from the USA, this Nordic island has had a lifelong hold on her creative work. Starting in 1990, she began publishing a series of books of photographs, drawings and writings that she had made in Iceland. You might say she’s an Island Zombie (2020), the title of a book of hers reflecting Iceland’s possession of her innermost being. “I come to this island to get at the very center of the world…I returned to Iceland with migratory insistence and regularity,” she writes, and goes on to reveal her fascination with the island’s weather:

…weather is a metaphor for the atmosphere of the world, for the atmosphere of one’s life: weather is a metaphor for the physical, metaphysical, political, social and moral energy of a person and a place.”

When Roni heard about plans to move the books from “the most beautifully situated library in the world,” she proposed her idea for the building’s new life to Stykkishólmur’s mayor. Her creative vision was realized from broad support within Iceland, from the aptly named Artangel that made this project its first international initiative, and from artists, foundations and patrons around the world. 

Magellan and I phoned ahead to ensure Library of Water” would be open that Saturday and to verify that we could get the key from the Norwegian House, a museum that is the restored home of a nineteenth-century merchant and scholar who campaigned for Icelandic independence.

We were the lone inhabitors in an intimate library of light and language. 

Sensational. 

A silent conversation of water, weather and glass. 

A library of twenty-four glass columns of melted glacial water from around Iceland refract and reflect light onto a rubber floor inscribed with words related to the weather.

Identical in size but irregular in arrangement, each sculptural container with water from a different Icelandic glacier is prismatic, a multitude of lenses, a column of distorted blurs of sea, rock and sky. The distortion, a sort of “inside-out panorama.”  Rebecca Solnit, the first artist-in-residence at “Library of Water,” writes that it is “…Iceland in miniature and a memorial for what was not yet gone.”

When viewed on your knees, the columns become convex watery lenses revealing the varying shades of bottom sediments, velvet greens, mottled purples and rocky greys, micro-landscapes unique to each glacier. Giant test-tubes of sediment from bygone millennia, from Ok, Snaefellsjökull and other remote glaciers.

The installation is an immersive experience from head to feet. Following the signage requesting the removal of your shoes, you feel a slight sense of rebounding pressure while walking in stockinged-feet on the specially made rubber floor that is the terracotta colour of volcanic soil, the ochre of parched earth. (Roni has likened Iceland to a kind of high desert.)

Scattered and dispersed on the floor is a bilingual sculpture installation, one-hundred adjectives denoting weather (and equally applicable to people) incised in moss green in Icelandic and English. An emotional climate of words like calm, mild, frigid and unpredictable and tryllt (tempestuous), pokukenndur (foggy) and the untranslatable suddalegt which means something like muggy or unpleasant, “a blizzard of associations.” I like heidskirt (clear and sunny).

Stykkisholmur (population 1,100) is a wonderful town. On the northern side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula (considered one of the seven energy centres of the world) it was one of the first areas in the country settled by the Vikings. Irafell, (Irish mountain) was named by the Celtics who settled here even earlier, in the ninth century. “Poem Slope Mountain” is the translation for Drapuhildarfjall, overlooking the town. (The poet W.H. Auden, also an Icelandophile, described the island as having “the most magical light of anywhere on earth.”) Roni’s ambitious installation is also a community space for chess, yoga and other activities.

And here’s an amazing, serendipitous coincidence that Roni didn’t discover until after “Library of Water” was installed in 2007.

The hilltop library, built in the 1950s, stands in the place where the first regular monitoring of meteorological conditions in Iceland was begun, by the most famous son of the town, Arni Thorlacius, in 1845—named Asgardur, it was the first weather station in the Nordic countries! (Coincidentally too, Stykkishólmul is at latitude 65°.)

The library has been likened to a paddle steamer with a wall of windows curving out over the sea. From the wheelhouse, the 180-degree bay window is filled with a seascape of the wide bay of Breidafjordur, the nearby island of Brokey, the innumerable scatter of shoals and islets, and the landscape of the town, the dock, the church and the distant hills.

In the opening essay of the exhibition catalogue for “Vatnasafn/Library of Water,” James Lingwood writes:

In a powerful passage in Walden (1854) Thoreau implored his readers… “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”

 I believe this is what Roni Horn has achieved too, in the Library of Water overlooking the sea. She has affected the quality of the day.

The quality of many days as I reflect on that Saturday afternoon in Stykkisholmur, the highlight, for me, of our trip to Iceland. My “St’ words: Stunning. Striking. Stellar.

Navigation

Fer, Briony. Roni Horn. Artforum. 2007. This is a brilliant issue about this installation that references two of my favourite artists: Agnes Martin and Donald Judd. Briony notes that “Jules Verne imagined the entry point for his journey to the center of the earth at the volcano at Snaefallsjokull, only an hour or so away from Stykkishólmur. “

Horn, Roni. Vatnasafn/Library of Water. Germany: co-published by Artangel and Steidl, 2009. Part of book is from Roni’s book, Weather Reports You, a collection of stories by local people about the weather.

Horn, Roni. Island Zombie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. Roni has authored many books, including You are the Weather, Making Being Here Enough, Dictionary of Water, Sea Change, and Rare Spellings.

Solnit, Rebecca. The Faraway Nearby. New York: Viking, 2013. Chance, what a grand role it plays in our lives. While I’m a big fan of Rebecca’s writing, I had not read this book, nor did I know that in it she discussed her time as artist-in-residence in Stykkishólmur’s library—until the time of writing this blog when by chance I requested it from the VPL.

8 Responses

  1. Thank you Gloria; places like this really stimulate the imagination as well as providing new perspective.

    The idea of weather and light’s effects on our experience of moment to moment life has always intrigued me.

    Agnes Martin is also one of my favourite artists. I have spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about many of her works. I’ve also done a few works in response to some of her ideas.

    Reflections and light distortion effects of the water colums are so imteresting.

    Wade

    1. Agnes Martin! Some day I’m going to do a blog about her even though it would be tricky to work it into a travel story unless I dig back to our drive through Taos in 2017 or go way back to 2005 when my friend Pat and I spent lots of time there one September–maybe one of your works could be featured in it!

  2. What an interesting project….and the fact it is situated at latitude 65 is very cool to boot. Did a google earth to get an idea of where this town was located – and it is isolated. But then almost everything at latitude 65 would be :-). SuperBowl Sunday for those who care – and there are a lot based on the comments we get from the Snowbirds we know in Phoenix. Over 200 private jets at the airport and insane prices to attend a football game. The library of water would be a great refuge I think.

    1. A ticket to “Library of Water” costs 1460 kroner (~Cdn$13.80), less than a hot dog at last year’s Super Bowl, which was US$12 (Cdn$16)!

  3. Library of water is a very thought provoking idea as we seem to have taken water for granted even though it is truly a staple of life for everyone.
    Maybe we will think a little more about how we use and or abuse this liquid of life. Thinking of water in a library speaks to me of our abuse of natures liquid gold, have we got to the point where it will soon only be available to view in locked up viewing areas.
    We may want to take a step back and think about that, how many places currently do not have clean drinking water. Just about every city in Canada passes on its polluted water, from its water treatment plants, “Downstream” to its neighbours, what a great people we are sharing our pollution with our neighbours.

    1. You are so right, and the problem is increasing from the lack of water in the Colorado River that is affecting so much of the US (we met some Americans hiking in Newfoundland who are thinking of moving to Canada because of the impending water shortage), the fact that you can no longer drink the water in our home town (and likely many other towns in SK) and the horrid pollution in False Creek (do not swallow any if you go overboard kayaking!).

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