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No.19: Library of Water

Issue 48 Apr / May 2009

Xavier Fulbright of ME Engineers picks an icelandic installation

Although from New York, Horn has been traveling to Iceland for30 years “to get at the very center of the world” and has found that the country has become both her studio and her material. The location of the Library of Water is in Stykkishólmur. This is a small town of one thousand inhabitants situated on the west coast of Iceland and approximately three hours from Reykjavík. When visiting in the early 1990’s, Horn was drawn to a building standing at the end of a cliff (just like Xavier!). At the time, the building functioned as the local library and had been built in the 1950s. The feature that attracted her interest was the huge windows that overlooked the harbour and the arctic sea beyond and years later in 2004, Horn opened the installation entitled Vatnasafn/Library of Water in the building. The work was commissioned by Artangel and was developed in response to the unique sense of place offered by the building offering both a sculptural installation and a community centre for the town.

The building has been altered in a number of ways to make a calm and serene gallery space with the original windows lengthened almost to the floor. The space acts as gallery to view both the installation of water inside and the view of the water outside. Both are affected by the weather which constantly changes. Horn describes this space as a “lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light.”

The building houses two installations on a long-term basis: the bilingual rubber floor ‘You are the Weather’ (Iceland) and the sculpture ’Water, Selected‘.

The water piece consists of 24 identical floor-to-ceiling clear glass columns approximately 1ft in diameter by 10ft high located throughout the main room. Some are clustered together and some stand alone. Each column is filled with around 50 gallons of water melted and collected from the glaciers of Iceland; Vatnajökull, Hofsjökull, Drangajökull, Snæfellsjökull. Some of these glaciers are melting so fast that they will cease to exist before a decade passes and the water displayed is both old and pure having frozen many hundreds of years previously. Artificial illumination is provided by spotlights recessed into the ceiling above each column and natural light effects refract and reflect throughout the space.

The second piece, though not about light or water specifically, is about the two combined; the weather. The floor is scattered with words snipped out of its rubber surface. Words in English and Icelandic evocative of emotion; ill, cruel, slæmt, bad, stillt, tranquil, svalur, cool, hressandi, bracing, lygnt, still, glettið, frisky, vitlaust, crazy, napur, piercing cold, blautt, wet.

“I go north. It’s in my nature. But it turns out that the vast majority of people go south... The desire to go north is an attraction to solitude, open space, subtle expressions of light and time... Sometimes going north is about whiteness. Sometimes it’s about darkness. I’m attracted to the darkness, it relieves me of the incessant call to visual attention – it opens interior spaces that offer untold possibilities of discovery. This darkness is really another form of light.”
Roni Horn

This is a timely selection for the Back Page with the Roni Horn exhibition currently on at the Tate, London and is a choice that entwines the location, the building, the installation within it and also the artist. When I first read about the Library of Water several years ago, it struck me as a work of genius. I am waiting for a Library of Light....

A few years ago, I went to the village of Stykkishólmur in Iceland, my mother’s hometown. Whenever I visit, I always wander around town and inevitably walk up the hill to the prominent location of the library. From the library, there is an excellent view of the harbour and vast expanse of the ocean. The library is a peculiar looking structure built atop a bluff that resembles a fishing boat. On this visit, I was surprised to discover that it no longer contained books, but instead had a number of columns each filled with water. These water columns are placed mostly by the windows, refracting the light penetrating into the building. Each column has a different translucency; some crystal clear, others a cloudy mixture. The installation continuously changes with the altering daylight and Iceland’s infamous ever changing weather. I was mesmerised by the water playing with the view outside and realised the installation quite simply acknowledged the two most important aspects to people in the north, the weather and light. The connection with the natural environment is undeniable and as I would later understand, each column contains water samples from each of Iceland’s glaciers; therefore becoming a living memorial.
Xavier Fulbright
Lighting Designer - ME Engineers


Library of water


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