The Doubt Box by Roni Horn is a clamshell box of 56 images printed on 28 loose double-sided cards. Those are the basic physical characteristics; the content of Doubt Box however is a mysterious examination of place and identity within Horn’s ongoing encyclopedia of
Upon opening Doubt Box we encounter images of churning and bubbling water that is the color of cement. It is dense and opaque. Vein-like ridges spread over the surface and tiny whitecaps add the only sense of scale.
The other side of the card reveals a teenage boy - blonde and handsome. He stares with direct eye contact. His lips are slightly parted. We scan his face to “read” his expression but he defies easy signals.
On a different card we face a foggy landscape of melting glaciers floating in glass-smooth water. Much of the glacier ice is blackened. On the flipside, we notice the same body of muddy water as pictured in the first card but its mood has changed. It now seems calmer and the scale is more confusing. It is more abstract now and might appear to be an aerial view of earth.
The boy appears again. Looking with the same intensity as before but his head is now slightly cocked as if a question has been asked. Or perhaps he is sitting in judgment. The water continues to shift and a swirl forms a tiny vortex.
Just as we start to read the surfaces of the water in relation to the boy’s face we are dealt a card of a Snowy Owl. Close-up and exotic, it stares with the same intensity as the boy but within that intensity is the sense of something comical. Luminously white and fluffy, it looks slightly cross-eyed. On the reverse, the water continues to smoothen and ripple at the edge.
On and on through the 28 cards, the Doubt Box provides information that varies so little it would be easy to miss had it not commanded our full attention. Patterns emerge and are broken. The water is a constant yet shifting foundation through the work. The boy, almost life size, communicates a frustrating vagueness (that may refer directly to the work’s title). The landscape of glacier ice gives a sense of stillness and isolation. The Owl changes species to a Razorbill. The Razorbill to a Skua. The Skua to a Falcon. The birds become anthropomorphized, mimicking the boy’s indefinable gaze.
Horn has made the viewer into an active participant in her game of establishing a metaphoric identity of place and self. The loose cards slow the viewer and swell the mind with the possible relationships from front of the card to the back and from plate to plate. There is no sequence once they are shuffled. Internal and external worlds are nudged into our thoughts by the four groupings of images. They, like the water, shift and change with each viewing.
The Doubt Box is beautifully crafted. The matte cardstock plates are finely printed and the surface of each makes an agreeable gritty sound when slid against another. The clamshell box and presentation are in keeping with the elegance of the other titles in the To Place series. The Doubt Box was published by Steidl in 2006.