Roni Horn’s ‘I Am Paralyzed With Hope’ Is a Flag for a New America

Photo: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

The drawing was made in Austerlitz, New York, on March 31, 2020. That date is the lightning bolt that brings this work to life and makes the meaning of the drawing arc across time. I Am Paralyzed With Hope somehow expresses three distinct micro eras in very recent American life, each with distinct relationships to paralysis and hope.

The first phase is the day it was made: On March 31, 2020, America had just gone into lockdown, and 31 states had issued shelter-in-place orders; a week later, it was 42 states. I was in Day 13 of my own quarantine. The city had come to a halt. There were 4,330 deaths in the United States. The country was in this same prayerful place, hoping it wouldn’t get worse, together in a national bunker. The hope was that the lockdown would buy enough time to build out a political and medical infrastructure to address the disease and avert catastrophe and to develop a rapid test-and-trace program. Our paralysis was hopeful — in retrospect, it’s clear, naïvely so. That day, the president tweeted about an MSNBC TV show and the “low rated (very) Morning Psycho (Joe).” Soon he projected that by Easter, 12 days from then, we would see churches “packed … it’ll be a beautiful time.” Already hope seemed doomed to turn into hopelessness.

The next era called forth by the drawing is the summer and fall of 2020. The country’s hope of being spared the worst of the pandemic was already gone. America was in the grip of the disease yet had also managed, somehow, to sort of move on — looking further ahead, perhaps as a way of avoiding the present. All was focused on the election; everything else took a back seat. America was in a crouch. The death counts got higher and the country was swept up in what seemed like a political contest for all time, then came the waves of protests after the murder of George Floyd. There was only this job one: getting rid of the rot on top and using this intense effort to stave off the existential loss in the country. This is the hope conjured in Horn’s drawing — the hope, in the depths of pandemic darkness, that offered the thinnest of threads on which to hang the fate of a nation.

The third era defined by both paralysis and hope is upon us now. It is the recognition that, facing a grim future, hope itself can be an almost paralyzing, burdensome responsibility — that with Joe Biden’s swearing-in, those Americans hoping for better can no longer simply hope for it but have to work for it, have to overcome paralysis and begin to address the colossal responsibilities now foisted on us. All of this is the locomotive that powers Horn’s unnerving drawing. It is a flag for a new America.

I Can’t Stop Thinking About This Roni Horn Painting