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Roni Horn, Angie and Emily Dickinson, Inverleith House, installation view, 2006

New York artist Roni Horn titles this joint retrospective exhibition in Scotland/Italy, Angie and Emily Dickinson —a strange coupling—one a famed American 1970s TV cop, the other a 19th century poet. And she’s chosen a Himalayan poppy, famous for its unique blue, and a favourite in the gardens around the gallery, for the cover of the catalogue. But it’s a teenage boy in ‘From Doubt by Water’ who beckons at the door of the gallery—a young sentry, his blond facial hair making its first shocking appearance. Sticking his head and shoulders portrait photograph onto a metal signpost like the ones that usher you round public buildings, Horn offers a mysterious welcome to her show—two popular ladies, a precious plant and a fresh-faced promise of stories to tell.

Unexpected connections are something Horn specialises in, redefining poetry, landscape, people with cloudless clarity. Inhabiting the elegance of Inverleith’s Georgian rooms with a wholly contemporary poise, the beauty of her work is somehow a thrilling match for the thoughtful neo-classical spaces and spectacular views to the Royal Botanic Garden and the city skyline beyond. Photographs, built into series, dominate the space, with firm and gentle (not genteel) intelligence. Composed around pin sharp detail, her focus is so concentrated, so steady, her subjects seem to shimmer with life. It’s as if their narrative has been mapped into the colour and contours of her compositions and thrown back to us, illuminating, wordy and alive with detail. A large stuffed owl, ‘Dead Owl’, 1997, has a twin reflecting its opposite view. Portraits of the artist’s niece, ‘This is Me, This is You’, 1999-2000, make up a double, reflecting bank of 96 images (48 on each wall) of a laughing, posing, teasing, vivacious, playful girl. Subtly hidden within these spontaneous moments is the deep sound of hormonal change as she becomes adolescent, dressed in leather. As for the boy in the foyer, he appears again, his image multiplied in a room shared with prints of icebergs (Horn divides her time between NYC and Iceland), disconcertingly shown at the same scale. His head sized against the monumental, melancholy, melting shapes, trigger a sense of foreboding. You can almost smell the future of both. Will they survive?

Taking a cue from nature, Horn finds novelty and meaning in repetition and quotation. In ‘Still Water (The River Thames for Example)’, 1999, the surface of the river is constantly changing and underlined with a key of quotes from popular and literary sources—murder stories, Conrad, Heiddegger. Gathering these moments with a calculated, scientific curiosity linked to the emotional awareness of a poet, Horn uncovers whispered narratives and imaginations in our world.

Though photography is the medium which creates the axis of her practice, Horn includes sculpture here, and drawings in the exhibition at Museion in Balzano, Italy, mounted to complement its sister in Edinburgh. The two slightly-bigger-than-head-sized orbs she describes as self-portraits, the ‘Aspheres’, are primal objects she has returned to since 1986. Discreetly positioned alone in the middle of the floor among the photographs, they are heavy, just as a head is surprisingly heavy, simple and beautiful. It is almost impossible not to give them a gentle stroke on the way out.

Alice Bain is editor of MAP