Learning from art: Roni Horn at Tate Modern

By Martin Vogel

you are the weather detail
You Are the Weather (detail), Roni Horn

Roni Horn is a contemporary artist who chips away at our certainties and presents a world which seems familiar yet turns out to be quite elusive.  It’s an experience to be commended to anyone who presumes to lead people or to understand the environment with which they are engaged.

An exhibition of her work is at Tate Modern.  It consists largely of sculpture and photography.  There is a great deal of repetition and variation on a theme and it’s easy to view the work quickly and think you have grasped it.  But it gets under your skin and eventually challenges your preconceptions, encouraging you to question perception itself.

The show culminates in a room containing 100 portraits of the same young woman who poses for Horn in hot springs at various locations in Iceland.  Each photo follows the same form.  The woman’s face and neck protrude from the water, filling the frame as she fixes her gaze on the viewer.  At first glance, it is the consistency you notice.  It carries through in the woman’s expression: still, contemplative, neutral.  Then, as you walk round the series, you become aware of changes in mood and emotion which are unsettling in their subtlety.  In some pictures there is anxiety or irritation, in others a faint smile.

One begins to experience the gulf between how we routinely process information and the depth and richness we can allow in if we give ourselves space and time.  For most of us, our default setting is to assimilate readily available information to form a quick judgment which gives us a basis for action.  We are driven to maintain the momentum of productivity, almost at any cost. You could see this impulse at play in the gallery in those who cantered past the works, barely stopping to apprehend them.

But what are we missing in the data that we exclude from consideration if we are always in this shoot-from-the-hip mode?  What do we lose in our appreciation of the people around us or our grasp of the competitive context in which we work.  Might we act differently if we give ourselves permission to read and feel more of the data which is the stuff of experience, to reflect on it before indulging the impulse to act?  I wonder what difference this might have made in the financial institutions which misread the risks in their investments and ostracised the people in their teams who expressed reservations.

Roni Horn coaxes us to distrust our certainties, to pause and find ways to look at things afresh.  One begins to feel energised, alive to new connections in the brain. I found myself constructing stories about the model and the artist.  I imagined them driving round Iceland from hot spring to hot spring: a growing sense of weariness on the part of the model as she submerges herself and assumes the pose at each new pool; the photographer recreating the image over and over, this time from afar with a telephoto lens, this time staring down from close by.

Notes on the wall from the artist suggest the variation in expression is explained simply by the model’s response to different climate conditions: sometimes cold and snowy, other times bright and sunny.

Who is to say whether she is right, whether I am misreading what I see?  She was there with the model.  But she had an interest in regarding the weather, rather than her own artistic demands, as the greater adversity for her model.  Like any leader, she tries to set our interpretation for us.  But we bridle against it.  We have our own version of reality.   The artist’s interpretation of the emotions conveyed by the model may be right.  But her reading is not accepted until decoded in the way she prefers by those receiving the message.   Meaning is created in the negotiation of the two.  When we create a message, we cannot control how it will be received.

A final thought is prompted by the title of the piece, You are the Weather.  This leads you to reflect on your own position as viewer or, perhaps, voyeur.  The model returns your gaze from every corner of the room – inscrutable yet somehow judging.  We are not mere spectators of the work, we participate in it.  Roni Horn has it that not only was the weather the main factor in the emotional states conveyed in the picture.  Somehow, as consumers of her art, as we gaze on her model, we assume responsibility for what the woman is put through.

So we are left with the thought that there is no fixed reality, out there beyond ourselves.  To observe it is to create it – and the more we make it the subject of our awareness, the more we change it because we are changed in the process and we are part of the process.  Business and organisations often operate with entirely different assumptions.  Our organisation charts convey internal structures which lay a beguiling sense of order and simplicity over the true complexity of how people relate to each other within and across teams.  And we imagine solid boundaries between our organisation and the world beyond, devising strategies for how we will engage with it, manipulate it.

If the current times tells us anything, it is that our reality is more of an improvisation than a structure which lends itself to directive plans.  It is emergent and unpredictable.  The challenge of leadership is to relinquish control and throw open the doors to interpretation.  The biggest risk in turbulent times is that we shut down creativity, constrain people’s ingenuity.  The task we must learn is how to release competing ways of seeing the world, yet coax them towards a unified purpose.  Roni Horn doesn’t offer answers.  But she helps us ask the right questions.

Roni Horn aka Roni Horn is at Tate Modern until 25 May 2009.