Entering either the second or fourth floor of the Whitney to see “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn,” a retrospective co-organized with Tate Modern in London, viewers were greeted by one or another version of This is Me, This is You (1999-2000), two wall-size grids of 48 portraits of Horn’s niece Georgia vamping for the camera. Horn photographed her between the ages of 8 and 10, documenting the child’s shifting face and moods, often reflected in her large and expressive blue eyes. From one grid to the other, the photographs differ just slightly, challenging the reliability of our visual memory. Horn’s mercurial subject undermines the notion of a stable identity, and the grids, in their subtle variability, purposefully destabilize the viewing experience. Such dislocations occurred throughout the exhibition, which was frequently engrossing, if occasionally inscrutable.

Horn manipulates assumptions about portraiture and photographic veracity in works like You Are the Weather (1994-95), a series of 36 gelatin silver prints and 64 C-prints, all close-ups of the same woman’s face. Horn photographed her submerged to the neck in hot springs throughout Iceland. (The country is a recurring subject, setting and muse.) Fluctuations in her expressions are minuscule, and we struggle to find meaning in them. As Horn has revealed in interviews, the cloud cover or the sun reflected in her subject’s eyes were the primary causes for what look like emotional shifts: the woman’s “mood” literally changes with the weather.

Other bodies of work present landscape as a form of portraiture as slippery and elusive in identity as Horn’s human subjects. The 10 pairs of C-prints in Becoming a Landscape (1999-2001) are close-ups either of a young person in a knit cap or of hot springs. Bubbling, wet and muddy, each slightly different from the next, with details that suggest bodily orifices (eyes, vaginas, mouths), the springs are more expressive than the face of their unknowable human counterpart.  

Still Water (The River Thames, For Example), 1999, comprising 15 offset lithographs, is one of the most engaging series in the show, revealing Horn’s fascination with different textures (the surface of the water appears, variously, hard as granite or pliable as clay), as well as with language. Each image shows the surface of the Thames, shot from directly above, with no reference to the banks on either side. Changes in the color and viscosity of the water are fairly dramatic, and each picture is littered with tiny white numbers that refer to voluminous “footnotes,” which record Horn’s observations and are printed at the bottom. “The color of the water changes constantly. Half of it is the sky,” reads one comment, just a single instance of Horn’s manifest interest in dualities.

Doubling is also central to the self-portrait series “a.k.a.” (2008). Images are displayed in pairs, often a picture of Horn as a child, on the one hand, and an increasingly androgynous adult, on the other. Horn also explores doubling in her sculptural work, which can be coolly impenetrable. Exhibited in separate rooms, Opposite of White and Opposite of Black (both 2006), solid glass casts, one black and one white, are doppelgängers that draw on the liquidlike effects of the medium. The frosted side surfaces of these two cylindrical shapes are rough, with cracks and crevices, while the insides look alluringly smooth and transparent. These works have a lush, tactile quality that is lacking in Things that Happen Again, for Two Rooms (1986), two solid copper forms, shaped rather like megaphones, displayed in adjacent rooms, and in White Dickinson (2006/07), aluminum and plastic rectangular rods with fragments of Emily Dickinson’s poems etched into their surfaces. The pared-down geometry and repetitive aspects of these works point to Horn’s roots in Minimalism, as well as to a tendency toward the overly cerebral.

Bird (1998/2008), by contrast, introduced a sliver of humor. From a distance, these pairs of large color pigment prints of taxidermied birds—or the backs of their heads, to be precise—suggest fingerprints, the ultimate mark of identity. Closer up, the designs are revealed as the lush color, patterning and texture of the birds’ plumage. Photographed against a white background, the birds are both seductive and opaque—as enigmatic as any other portrait in this retrospective.

Photos: (left) Roni Horn: Pair E, from the series “a.k.a.,” 2008-09, inkjet prints, each 15 by 13 inches; at the Whitney. (right) Still Water (The River Thames, For Example), 1999, one of 15 offset lithographs, 301⁄2 by
411⁄2 inches.

Currently on View “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn,” Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston [Feb. 19-June 13]. It was at the Whitney [Nov. 6, 2009-Jan. 24, 2010].