Vatnasafn, the Library of Water
Author and activist So Mayer shares why Roni Horn's artwork Vatnasafn is important to her.
I’m not sure any more if there are words for what I “do,” in the sense of having a profession – although there are words for what I am doing on a given day, which add up to a busy, if sometimes disjunct, way of being: writing, talking, connecting, meeting, offering, listening, defining, redefining, swearing, sharing, making, learning, teaching, editing, publishing, scheduling, administrating, annotating, researching, arguing, revising, Skyping, sitting, thinking, waiting, holding… Making change. Let’s say a mutabilitator, a facilitator of mutability.
But the truth is that change happens whether I get out of bed in the morning and switch on the internet or no. What I really do is try to read the patterns of change as they swirl (and, in 2016, seem to reverse), and make connections between ideas, texts, art forms, people, media, moments, histories – connecting them conceptually through my own writing as a poet, critic, interviewer and film historian, and connecting them IRL as a film curator, educator, editor and activist. So: a mutabiliteorologist: someone who reads the weather of change – but also tries to make a little of my own weather. Or at least tries to get together, and bask in the brilliance of, people who design new kinds of (cultural, political, social, adaptive) umbrellas for changing weather.
Weather/whether: it’s a word full of doubt, not least now in the face of accelerating human-made climate change (and an acceleration of political refusal to deal with it). The Wicked Witch of the West’s cry “I’m melting” has become all of ours – and we are all, like the witch, implicated in the destruction leading to our own demise. So my favourite artwork is an ironic (or ice-ronic) story: a profound work about climate change that I took an airplane to see. Not literally: but it is in Iceland, and I live in the UK. I went to Reykjavik for a head-clearing, heart-resetting trip in 2004, after a year of being broken-down to my emotional components, and I’ve revisited the city a few times since in memory of that restorative first step into deciding to be alive. In autumn 2008, I went in part to visit Vatnasafn, the Library of Water, by Roni Horn.
Vatnasafn, the Library of Water, Stykkishólmur. Carlo Cravero on flickr, 2014.
It was before I’d seen Horn’s work at Tate Modern (2009) and developed a full-blown obsession with her sly, playful, generous, elemental work, which led me to discover many things including bell hooks’ essay on Emily Dickinson (in the catalogue of Horn’s work called Earth Grows Thick). I didn’t yet have its smell in my nose – but I knew that I had to visit the quicksilver, contradictory idea of a library (something settled – and made of paper!) of water (enemy of paper, as well as constituent in its making). I was, though, already well obsessed with the work of poet Anne Carson, who was the 2008 writer in residence at Vatnasafn, which really is (or rather, was) a library – or rather, was the town library of Stykkishólmur.
In fact, it’s still a library of sorts, with a small collection of books and magazines featuring reviews, essays, interviews and poems about the project. Where once were shelves, though, are now floor-to-ceiling glass columns containing water extracted and melted from 24 of the major glaciers around Iceland (Water, Selected), cataloguing and memorialising them as they risk disappearance. Each column has a slightly different colour from the sediment it contains (and, you imagine, a slightly different taste), and from its angle to the great bay window that looks out over the harbour towards the Westfjords.
Over the two hours we spent in the library (having arrived there, through driving hail, by the public mail-bus from Reykjavik), we saw every weather: hail, sleet, rain, high winds, fast clouds, brilliant sunshine, fog. It was like being in a snow globe with multiple settings. Refracted through the columns, the changing light fell onto the other work in Vatnasafn, a hard-wearing immersive installation – one you cannot avoid getting involved with, because it makes up the floor of the main space. On foot, crutches, or wheels, you are part of You Are the Weather. Icelandic and English weather-words are embedded in the ochre floor tiles, in a slightly-lighter shade of yellow rubber. As your shoes or tyres scuff over it, it gives off a distinctive, if slight, smell, one that seems similarly sulphuric to the Icelandic water.
As with weather, Vatnasafn is something you are in – or, something you experience differently when you are in it. Part of the reason it means so much to me, though, is that it’s not just a privileged experience for the few, because of the writers’ residency programme that has produced numerous works that include you in their library, like Agniezska Gzata’s essay “The Green Ray". The library shows up as a kind of resurrection ship (I was watching Battlestar Galactica when I visited…) in Rebecca Solnit’s memoir of mourning and change, The Faraway Nearby. Like a library book, Vatnasafn keeps circulating. Anne Carson’s poem from her residency “Wildly Constant” (republished in 2016 as part of the chapbook box Float) then generates Elizabeth Harvey and Mark Cheetham’s essay “Tongues of Glacier” (Word & Image, 13.1, 2015).
Carson is a linguist and translator whose poetry and prose sample languages as Horn sampled glaciers, seeking the sediment that shows a history, and refracting light this way and that through uneven glass whose distortions and elongations remind us that transparency and reflection are both deceptive. They are an opportunity to enter into the mirror, or the glass, or the glacier. Vatnasafn is, for me, the best kind of science fiction (a genre I spend a lot of time in); the best kind of feminist science fiction, I should say – ecological, meteorological, concerned with the minutiae of hydrology, chemistry, linguistics, architecture.
Vatnasafn is, as Anne Carson describes it in “Wildly Constant", another world – that thing we badly need to remember is possible, exists. Where a glacier is and isn’t itself, is busy glaciering, deglaciering, melting, sedimenting, unsure how these gerunds add up to being. Where it is held in suspension, between-ness, working out that how as the climate changes around it.
I first travelled to Iceland to reconcile contradictions in myself – the most pressing being that I could not understand how to be alive – and so I go back and back in my mind to Vatnasafn’s dissolution as counter to disillusion, to its fairground glacier-mirrors as a way to see myself laughing at myself as, quoting Carson speaking in “tongues of glaciers," I can say
I have no theory
of why we are here
or what any of us is a sign of.
But a room full of melted glaciers
reverberating with the nightwind of Stykkishólmur
is a good place to ponder it.
So Mayer is a UK-based writer, editor, educator and activist with a passionate commitment to arts and social justice. She is a member of queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes and Raising Films, an organisation set up to improve working conditions for parents and carers in the film industry. She's a lecturer in film at LCC and Queen Mary University of London, and a film journalist for Sight & Sound and The F-Word, where she focuses on independent, experimental, and feminist films and film culture.