The word geyser comes from Geysir – the name of the first described geyser known to European scientists and explorers.
Much of what we know about Geysir in Iceland, and about geysers in general, comes from work carried out by Robert Bunsen in 1846. (Yes, that Bunsen, of the bunsen burner.)
He discovered that geyser activity was caused by heating of underground water at a particular point, while the rest of the water remains colder.
Geysir is thought to have been active for about 10,000 years, and is still active, although it’s not always predictable. Until the 1990s, eruptions were sometimes induced with soap so that the geyser could go off on command for special occasions, but that practice was abandoned out of environmental concerns.
Artist Roni Horn has been traveling to Iceland from her home in New York since the 1970s. The unique nature of the Icelandic landscape and climate deeply informs all her work, which ranges from sculptures and drawings to photos and books.
In the 1990s she discovered the local library in the small town of Stykkisholmur and was impressed with its architectural style and its views of the sea, sky, town and harbor. When the library ceased operations in 2003, Horn proposed the creation of a permanent installation in the building. The result, Vatnasafn/Library of Water, opened in 2007.
The Library of Water consists of three linked parts: The first, Water, Selected is a sculptural installation of 24 glass columns containing water collected from ice from some of Iceland’s major glaciers. The columns bend and reflect the light onto a rubber floor which is printed with words in Icelandic and English related to the weather. As Gordon Burn described it in The Guardian, “with the windows cut to the floor, Library of Water pokes up into the weather. It sets its face at everything the weather can throw at you, which in Iceland invariably means extremes of light and wind and cold; visibility often varies from minute to minute.”
The second exhibit, Weather Reports You, consists of taped interviews with 100 Icelanders about their interactions with the weather and selections from Horn’s books about Iceland. The third part of the library is a private writers’ studio where each year writers from Iceland and abroad are invited to live and work for several months at a time.
The idea of a library of water gathered from glaciers is not only beautiful and novel, but may become essential. A great deal of information about historical climate, atmospheric and geological conditions is trapped in the ice of glaciers. As global warming causes the glaciers to melt, we may have no choice but to look at them in a preserved and cataloged form, like antiquated books in a library.
Information about visiting the Library of Water is here. If you can’t make it to Iceland, you can see related work by Roni Horn at the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in New York City until January 11, 2014.