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Her Journey to the Water of the Earth

"Descend, bold traveler, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the calends of July, and you will attain the center of the earth; I have done this, Arne Saknussemm." —A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

In Jules Verne's 1864 novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, a German professor, his nephew and a guide journey to Iceland and embark on a voyage down a volcano, heading to the core of the planet. Icelandic voyages were also eminent in the poetry of W. H. Auden. The small island state (roughly the same size of Ohio) has the largest glaciers in Europe, more than 100 fjords, more than 10,000 waterfalls and countless hot springs. Since 1990, however, most glaciers in Iceland have been retreating, and the melting has become a mirror of world climate.
    The fishing village of Stykkishólmur, population 1,200, is located on the northwest coast of Iceland. About three years ago, the village library had outgrown its structure, and the lending collection was relocated. U.S. artist Roni Horn (b. 1955), who had periodically traveled and worked in Iceland since the 1970s, spotted the library's building, situated on top of a low cliff, higher than the local church and reminiscent of a lighthouse overlooking the entrancing waters of the cold ocean.
    In collaboration with London-based Artangel, an organization that commissions and produces exceptional art projects by contemporary artists, Horn began an architectural installation project that converted the theoretical and functional scopes of the former library into a new working center for the community. Entitled "Vatnasafn/Library of Water", the project sought to offer a sculptural space for quiet reflection and a place for meeting and gathering.
    Roni Horn's vast body of work links nature and humanity, probing the idea that we look and experience nature in our own image. Horn, who had a 2004 solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, has particularly focused on our relationship with water and our attachment to weather. She sees her work as site-dependent, and Iceland, its wilderness and culture, has become a platform for Horn's artistic identity.
    Horn wrote in 1991 that Iceland is "big enough to get lost on. Small enough to find myself. I come here to place myself in the world. Iceland is a verb and its action is to center" (Island and Labyrinth, 1991). In 2006, while delivering the keynote speech to the graduating class at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, she noted, "I have used this place as an open-air studio of unlimited scale and newness. In retrospect, I see that I have chosen Iceland the way another artist might choose marble as the substance of one's work. Iceland taught me to taste experience."
    "Vatnasafn / Library of water" opened in May of 2007. The space has two levels and is roughly 3,000 square feet. With monumental windows, it invites viewers to cast an eye over the tin roofs of Stykkishólmur, the harbor fishing boats and the prevailing beauty of the sky and water, whose colors transform with undulating intensities of atmospheric light.
 Inside, Horn has replaced the stacks of books with a constellation of 24 floor-to-ceiling glass columns, which contain water she gathered (as ice) from Iceland's major glaciers and glacial rivers. When Horn melted the glacial ice and poured the water into the columns, she noticed that the appearance of water varied from one source to another. As a result, the subtle differences in color and opacity have created a richness of natural color, and the archived waters gleam like precious stones.
    The floor, created by the artist, is made of two-inch thick rubber, into which Horn inscribed adjectives describing the weather in both Icelandic and English. In addition, "Vatnasafn/ Library of Water" exhibits "Weather Reports You", an ongoing collection of testimonies from locals archiving personal weather anecdotes.
    "I have always taken the weather personally," Horn noted last year in the keynote speech. "Freud said 'to talk about the weather is to talk about oneself'. And I am as attracted to weather as much for what it is as for what people have to say about it. The beauty of weather is that we all share it equally. At this point in history it may be the only thing each of us holds in common."
    As a community center, the building will host an annual writers' residency program and will also be used by the local community for events, including a chess club for women, regular book readings, yoga classes and meetings to discuss environmental issues. The website for the installation is fascinating and can be accessed at http://www.libraryofwater.is

Photo: Vatnasafn/Library of Water by Roni Horn, 2007. Commissioned and produced by Artangel. Photography by Stefan altenburger. 

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07