Art

Roni Horn: Ways to present the self

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

While visiting the Rathole Gallery, a confident 3 year-old told me that his favorite work in the current exhibition, Roni Horn’s “The Selected Gifts,” was a picture of meatballs.

Among the straightforward, but nonetheless very beguiling, studio photographs of objects that the New-York based artist has received as gifts over several decades, the meatballs are notable for being perishable. Other objects, such as an old copy of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” a pebble, a Rolex, Flintstones figurines, a handmade velvet heart and a re-photographed work by Jurgen Teller, seem to have been kept by Horn for years.

The absolute precision and neutrality of the photography makes the representation of the objects more visually compelling than some of the actual gifts were originally, but that’s perhaps incidental. While Horn’s work often features beautiful photographs, her focus is more on using photography beautifully, and absorbing our attention so that we get caught up in her thinking.

In this series we are invited to imagine who Roni Horn is, according to prefatory text in the book of this project. By getting a look at her inventory of tokens of friendship and social exchange, we might be able to deduce her interests, social circle, likes, character — but this forensic exercise cannot be taken at face value, given that Horn has continually challenged ‘identity’ as being fluid and performative.

And then there is the “The” — it’s not “Selected Gifts” or “A Selection,” Horn is careful about words, which often appear in her work as objects, graphical elements and sometimes veils to, not clarifiers of, meaning. Using the definitive article in the title puts up a notional boundary between the gifts on show and other gifts that Horn might have received.

The “selection” is elevated to mock-heroic status linguistically, as well as through the photography, which turns juvenilia and bric-a-brac into an esoteric archive of artefacts that manages to be self-important and self-deprecating at the same time. Seeing this series in Japan, where gift-giving carries more entangled sociological import than in Horn’s native New York, (gold toilets for the White House notwithstanding) the contrast between the informality of many of the objects, and the cryptic reverence with which they are presented, is particularly interesting.

Horn directs us to unashamedly consider objects as vessels of sentimental value, but it seems important that photographs, not the objects themselves are displayed. As it is, we are reminded that commodities can be, by turns, fun, meaningful or pleasurable, but a personality they do not make. By creating a visual equivalence between luxury goods, ephemera, literature and trinkets, “The Selected Gifts” becomes an exploration of symbolic exchange as a riposte to the seeming inescapability of market forces being the primary mechanism for assigning value.

In other words, a photograph of meatballs (in a tomato ragu) displayed in a gallery next to other gifts, doesn’t reliably inform us that Roni Horn is a lover of Italian food. Being a distant cousin to Magritte’s 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images,” Horn’s series is an elegant rhapsody on the value of reading into things.

Roni Horn’s “The Selected Gifts, (1974-2015)” at Rat Hole Gallery runs until March 4; free. For more information, visit www.ratholegallery.com.