The current installment of Roni Horn’s two-part drawing exhibition, When I Breathe I Draw, Part II at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston offers viewers an opportunity to think about how the phenomenon of confusion, doubt and uncertainty, now referred to as the “post-truth condition,” manifests in the recent history of contemporary art. Comprised of five bodies of work in drawing, photography and collage, Horn’s work here probes this same skeptical foundation of confusion, doubt and uncertainty.
Horn is part of a generation of artists influenced by the arrival of French Deconstruction to New York in the 1980s and ’90s. Deconstruction is a recent version of ancient Greek skepticism. This ancient view holds that because sense perception is unstable and subject to illusion, apprehending reality through the senses is impossible. The most radical form of this attitude suggests that external reality doesn’t even exist apart from the senses that create it. Deconstruction updates and reinforces this philosophy by claiming that truth and reality do not exist apart from language. Words do not correspond to a separate, external reality; they create that reality.
Horn’s linguistic skepticism is most convincingly embodied in two related series: Th Rose Prblm and The Dog’s Chorus. In these drawings Horn intersperses visually fragmented idioms and colloquial phrases with sliced and diced phrases found in the writings of Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein. Horn literally illustrates the Deconstructionist claim that language and the reality formed by it crumbles and slips through our fingers when we examine it closely.
Following Horn’s drawn and collaged text across the page, words and phrases intermingle nonsensically, break apart, lose their relationship to language and become more and more fragmented until they dissolve and drift away toward the edges of the frame. Horn implies that neither the writer nor the reader has control over the meaning of a text, because they have no control over the infinitely fragmenting meanings of words. Packed one after the other into the largest gallery of the Drawing Institute, these two series are intentionally repetitive and numbing.
Doubt and confusion breed more doubt and confusion. Horn’s repetition mirrors the cognitive despair into which the reader slips when they begin to doubt the meaning of every word on the page. Consulting the dictionary for the definition of an unknown word, the reader discovers that definition is comprised of more words. But what do those words mean? Has their meaning changed over time? Words lead to more words. When the reader begins to doubt the common meaning of words built up through traditional use, they wander further away not just from language, but from the reality that language describes.
This is a seductive idea. But is this really how language works? Meaning can be lost and distorted over time and with intention. Clarity is essential to communication. Literary study can never afford to skim lightly across the surface of language. But does language really finally disappear layer by layer into primal incomprehension? The conclusions of a certain kind of hairsplitting logic do indeed imply that any linguistic proposition is an illusion when every word in that proposition is uncertain.
But for Horn’s subversion of language to work, she must rely on the fact that language has meaning. Her text drawings are only effective to the extent that the viewer is confused and frustrated by their lack of legibility. It may be true that the effective correspondence of language to an external reality is mysterious. But just because a thing is mysterious doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Linguistic skepticism seems to embrace uncertainty, but it can also be understood as a reactionary response to uncertainty. Faced with a mysterious thing like the inexplicable meaningfulness of language, the skeptic can deny its meaning.
Horn’s Remembered Words drawings also circle around the claim that language systems are ultimately meaningless. Here circles of gouache and watercolor are painted in what seems to be a systematic color scale. On closer inspection the colors don’t correspond to any recognizable scale of color or value. If the color isn’t randomly applied, then it’s applied according to a private system Horn intentionally withholds from the viewer. This doesn’t mean there is no system, or that systems don’t make sense. It just means that the viewer doesn’t have Horn’s key.
Each colored circle is labeled with a handwritten word. The viewer struggles to reconcile the system of colored circles with the words. Sometimes one word will roll into the next and a vague sense of meaning seems about to form. But any reconciliation of one word to another or the words to their corresponding color is ultimately frustrated. Quoted in the exhibition brochure Horn says, “The words have no context. They are someone else’s recall, present as evidence or residue of something the viewer cannot know.” The fact that Horn has stripped her words of context in an act of obfuscation implies that these words previously existed within a context that gave them meaning.
Horn’s other works in the exhibition argue the same essential point: the pursuit of truth through knowledge is a quixotic endeavor. Her cut and reassembled maps of Iceland pit topography against emotional devastation. Hand-written across the bottom of one map is the plaintive declaration that “I think about life: all the systems that I shall ever construct and never equal my cries.” Does emotional agony negate topography? Horn’s cut and reassembled photographs of clowns seem to affirm the popular understanding of human identity as inherently chimerical. Human identity isn’t just buried under a smiling mask — it’s fragmented all the way down.
I believe Horn suggests that the nature of language, and the truth claims people make with it, are not imperfectly understood, but unknowable. But if so, what is the purpose of language? The same Greeks who introduced skepticism to thought answered this question. Gorgias, an Athenian skeptic wrote, “The power of Logos [language or speech] has the same relation to the soul as the order of drugs has to the nature of bodies…some Logoi [types of language or speech] cause grief, others joy, some fear, others render their bearer bold, and still others drug and bewitch the soul through evil persuasion.”
Language can be seductive or inflammatory, inspiring or despairing without containing a shred of truth. Emotional language without truth is rhetoric, and rhetoric is a tool of manipulation. Every politician knows that confused, uncertain people who doubt reality are easy to control. The Deconstructionist project of dismantling language and denying truth is ultimately concerned with the pursuit of power. Truth is only ever partially visible, but reason requires its existence as an ideal. Human language is the form in which that ideal is expressed, and when it’s destroyed, the only thing left to take its place is force.
On view at the Menil Drawing Institute, Houston, through Sept. 1, 2019