Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

All Things are Water

by Naomi Riddle

26 Jun 2014


Time is water; water is time. ‘Water is something you cannot hold,’ writes the poet Anne Carson, and in its very pure scientific form, water immediately ruptures linear time, it exposes the transitory and inexplicable nature of temporality: the changing state of the element, the evaporation into thin air, precipitation, an endless cycle of return from ice, to water, to steam, to vapour, finally collapsing into nothingness.[1]   



When we try to speak of time we end up talking about water, of ice – of the desire to hold everything in place. Carson tells us of the Ancient Greek legend of Danaos’ forty-nine killing daughters ‘sent to hell and condemned to spend eternity gathering water in a sieve.’[2] The eternal hell of attempting to harvest time, but water as ice would have stayed in the sieve for longer. Memories can be ice, melting, slowly, perhaps a single drop trickling occasionally into the present. If you have an idea but you need to be patient, put it on ice.  You can have ice wrapped around your heart; you’re as cold as ice. Playing statues in the backyard, you freeze. Wait. Stop. Or you shout ‘freeze: put up your hands.’ Hold fast. A photograph is a freeze-frame, Deleuze’s idea of time crystallised into an image has ice in its centre – you can press the pause button on your remote to hold everything in place, but how long before it begins to melt?



Men and women across centuries have dreamt of reaching immortality through freezing, sustaining their life in a deep and restful slumber only to be woken up in what they can only imagine is a space better than their own present. Ice is the alchemist’s philospher’s stone, an elixir. It is Han Solo in the carbonate refrigerator. For the writer Rebecca Solnit, ‘ice [is] the preserver: cold slows things down. In freezing conditions, liquid becomes solid, and the flow and motion of even the inanimate largely stops, and, at the impossible temperature of absolute zero, atoms, molecules, entropy, would stop, and of course life would have ceased long before.’[3] Any object, or even human, that is sustained through freezing will always decay from the moment it is discovered or moved; ice sheets collapse, turn to water, evaporate and return skyward. The frozen body, hair, clothes, everything in place, preserved for hundreds of years, will begin to dissolve at the moment the body is removed from its icy tomb. To attempt to hold a shard of ice is to attempt to hold onto time, and yet prize open your fingers and you’ll find only a trace, a trace that will not remain there for long. Nothing is permanent; time is marching on. The deep freeze always gives way to water.



W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz asks whether we can even pin down time, can it be measured, and in asking this he finds a river, finds water: ‘If Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow? What would be this river's qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent?’[4] But there can be no source, no entry point to time and no point of departure, rather, like the fluid and heavy quality of water, time circles in of and around itself, undulating, eddying and overflowing, but always-already in the process of changing state, for ‘if time is a river, then perhaps its water may turn to ice.’[5] Rebecca Solnit tells us the story of the Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen who stayed alone in a cabin on the edge of an ice sheet for the long dark winter of 1906-1907: ‘It was so cold that even inside his cabin, even with the small coal stove, the moisture in his breath condensed into ice on the walls and ceiling. He kept breathing. The house got smaller and smaller’: ‘Peter Freuchen, six foot seven, lived inside the cave of his breath.’[6] A man in a hut is surrounded by the physical presence of time passing, he can reach out and hold onto a shard of ice made of a breath that he has breathed weeks earlier. Without his coal, Freuchen would have suffocated, he would have died a death from the overwhelming presence of his own returning breath frozen in water – time crystallized in image.



It is hard to conceive of time as a thing, as a tangible substance, accessible and all encompassing, although every single part of the cosmos, from the ant to the collapsing star is dependant upon and passes through it. As Daniel Birnbaum writes in Chronology (2005) ‘there are only more or less riveting analogies [to conceive of time]: the line, the circle, the cone, the pyramid, the crystal, the spiral, the network, the fold, the labyrinth.’[7] But if water is time, it’s symbol is not a line or a circle but ∞ - infinity – the perpetual folding loop, turning backwards, creasing over itself. Ice, water, steam, evaporation, these are the stages of Nietzsche’s eternal return, ‘haven’t we already coincided in the past?’: ‘everything that happens in the universe is destined to happen again.’[8] The idea of Now, the present, is as transparent as the surface of water: the Now, the Absolute Moment is carried away by the current.  



The artist Roni Horn goes in search of water. Water is a smudge that is always present in her work: the Library of Water (2007) in Iceland holds a vast collection of samples from Iceland’s melting glaciers, You are the Weather (1994-1996) shows the face of a woman emerging from the water over and over, drops running down the curves of her face like tears, some of sorrow, some of joy. Still Water (The River Thames, For Example) is Austerlitz’s and Newton’s River Thames, a small patch of water in Central London shot in the winter and spring of 1999 – but this doesn’t seem to be a river, nor do we discover into what sea it finally flows, instead it is a collection of moments freezing the water’s path. As W.G Sebald writes, ‘is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than the weather?’[9]


What Horn does with water can be seen as an attempt to classify the unclassifiable - once again, to hold water in a sieve – to pause and to freeze. There is always the element of the repetitive, the routine in Horn’s work, things have to be numbered, repeated, a series worked over again, building up an archive, a dictionary, a history of water, an anthropology of time. The attempt to number and bookend ∞.


Horn’s Ten Liquid Incidents (2010-12) for the Sydney Biennale are glass castings; ten sculptures placed in a room, which seem to emanate a blue sheen, a light, a ripple that comes from the water lying on the surface. They are labeled incidents – moments in time. Horn’s castings look like giant blocks of ice, but blocks of ice that will not melt, which cannot melt. The water holds fast, there are no dribbles that fall, instead everything is still - time is frozen; there is a cleft, a fissure in the coherence of the passing moment.  These works seem perpetually on the cusp of melting away into nothing, to the room becoming a sea, a pool of water – and yet they always remain on the cusp, the edge, on the point just before the melt.  



There is a sense of calm in Horn’s work, quietude, silence, it is meditative but at the same time, unsettling. There is a shadow lurking. The pool where Narcissus first saw his reflection would have looked like Horn’s liquid incidences, the pull to the surface, the tipping over and the falling in. Do not touch. Water is something you cannot hold.



Narcissus drowned. Falling in love with his own reflection, he leant too far and fell over the edge. To drown in time is to drown in one’s own memories, to be consumed by the past, to not stay ahead of the stream. But Horn’s works flirt with the idea of drowning, but in the release, the letting go to time, that is where the stillness comes from, where it can be felt. The poet Kendra Grant Malone writes about a woman who was resuscitated after drowning, ‘at dinner she once/ told me that / if you can avoid dying / she would recommend drowning to anyone’: ‘it was / the calmest, greatest moment / of her life.’[10] Perhaps that is what Horn gives us as part of Ten Liquid Incidents, the ability to experience this calmness of drowning, to be consumed by water and ice, whilst allowing us to walk away unscathed.


[1] Anne Carson, ‘Anthropology of Water’ in Plainwater (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 117

[2] Carson, p. 118

[3] Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (Granta Publications: London, 2013), p. 41

[4] W.G Sebald, Austerlitz (2001), p. 141, quoted in Daniel Birnbaum, Chronology (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2005), p. 9

[5] Solnit, p. 42

[6] Solnit, p. 199-200

[7] Birnbaum, p. 30

[8] Birnbaum, p. 11

[9] W.G Sebald, Austerlitz (2001), p. 14, quoted in Birnbaum p. 9

[10] Kendra Grant Malone, ‘My Father’s Friend’ in Everything is Quiet (Sacramento: Scrambler Books, 2010), p. 11-2


Watch an interview with Juliana Engberg, Artistic Director of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, featuring the work of Roni Horn at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.