Pulverized altar stones, naked youths, jet engines filled with anti-depressants—these are just some of the exhibits in a powerful new survey of mid-career British artist Roger Hiorns at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, through March 5.
Hiorns is known for his Turner Prize–nominated work Seizure (2008), in which he lined an entire flat in a south London housing project with copper sulphate, turning it into a vast sparkling blue grotto covered with razor-sharp crystals. He has also coated small objects and reduced larger ones to dust.
His recent work, as he explained, is about “putting the human back at the center of the artwork.” To that end, the human element appears as naked youths; suspended dummies that periodically slump to the ground; and as various anthropomorphic sculptures.
“The show itself is really a lot about the predicament of the body and the pressures that that body is under and the flesh is under,” the Birmingham-born artist said as we toured the installation.
In the upstairs gallery, two naked youths move among sculptures, an X-ray machine lying overturned on the floor, a pile of dust from the pulverized altar stone, and a jet engine filled with anti-depressants. Why anti-depressants? According to Hiorns, it’s to do with the idea that there’s “a certain other reality that’s in play,” produced by the mind-altering medicine. He thought a military machine would make for an interesting collision. From time to time a fire is ignited by gallery staff on part of the engine’s body, recalling its original purpose and reinforcing its current dysfunction. It’s not enough heat to provide much warmth for the youths, one of whom complained that the metal was “quite cold and uninviting” to sit on. “If it gets painful we can give you some painkillers,” Hiorns replied, not altogether sympathetically. The youths simply represent a renewable material, unlike the objects in the sculptures that will eventually age.
“I wanted to make a work which slipped through the problem of time,” Hiorns explained. “And so if you had essentially a piece of work which had a youth involved . . . with an object of its time . . . we would actually then be able to feed the work new youth, and it would always be replenished.” Hiorns, who attended Goldsmiths art college in the ’90s, almost forgot to pause for breath, the ideas spilling out in such rapid succession. “Sorry, I’ve had too much coffee this morning,” he grinned.
In an adjoining room there are hanging humanoid forms composed of car parts and pieces of medical equipment, which continually disgorge columns of foam. Hiorns has made around 500 of these sculptures in the past couple of years, and when he’s had them in his house, he said, “there’s a kind of strangeness to their physicality, a presence to them, rather like a cat.” The uncanny foam-spewing waste figures and the vulnerable youths perched on the paralyzed relics of our time seem to offer a bleak vision of humanity in some not too distant future.
But of course there could be another reading, which is both about overcoming stasis and subverting authority. “My process of making is always a certain type of iconoclasm,” Hiorns said. “It is about taking the dominant force and somehow either readapting it, insulting it, or burying it.”
In his most literal interpretation yet of this notion, Hiorns plans to bury a whole Boeing 737 in a patch of wasteland outside Birmingham. The proposal, supported by Ikon, is projected to happen in 2018, pending the outcome of viability studies and fundraising. Beyond the clear links to the truncated military jet engine and atomized passenger aircraft on display, the buried plane connects to other works that share a similar conceptual framework.
The decimated altar stone, for example, finds an echo in a video work documenting two performances orchestrated by Hiorns over the summer in St. Philip’s Cathedral Birmingham in which choir members lay on the floor to sing Evensong. Although Hiorns studiously avoids biography in his work, he confided that in his youth he was a chorister, which introduced him early on to beauty—an idea that was anathema to Goldsmiths back in the ’90s, but which now he seems prepared to reconsider.
With many of these apparently farfetched concepts, Hiorns is presenting new modes of behavior to counter the clichéd, unspontaneous rituals by which most people live. “I think the chronology of that has to be disturbed and that ‘one thing that leads to another’ has to be stopped in a way,” he explained. In his alternative version, “one thing that leads to another is burying aircraft or one thing that leads to another is asking choirs to lie down.”
In the downstairs gallery a still more somber mood prevails. “This is where the show gets even more intense,” Hiorns said with evident relish. Here the predominant theme of the body becomes more visceral. A video interview with a scientist delves into Variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD), the fatal brain-wasting illness associated with mad cow’s disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. The piece formed part of an extensive body of work by Hiorns exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London last year. It was devoted to the disease and its social impact.
As an aside, Hiorns noted that he had proposed his vCJD work for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale this spring, given the international reverberations of the BSE crisis. Unsurprisingly he didn’t get far.
Hiorn’s interest in the degenerative brain disease connects to a series of brain-matter works nearby. One electric blue painting is made from copper sulphate grown off brain tissue; another painting is daubed with animal brain matter; and a Toyota engine on the floor is filled with such material.
On another wall hang large waxy paintings made with latex depicting phalluses and sexual acts between men. Although the artist said that they were not made with AIDs in mind, their juxtaposition alongside the vCJD works nonetheless recall the illnesses that gripped the media in the late ’80s and ’90s.
In the same room, two life-size dummies attached to the wall by electromagnets periodically fall to the floor when the power is cut. “It’s a very brutal work,” Hiorns noted. “It’s a bit too much in a way. This body is also stuffed with the text of Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, just to make the level of this work even more too much.”
Indeed, excess or “too much-ness” provides an interesting current running through the exhibition in which so many objects seem to have been ground to dust or stuffed with foreign matter. In this space, the organic clashes with manmade, beauty with disease, tradition with change.
In the middle of the room stands a freezer into which you can put your arm. The aim, Hiorns said, is to invite viewers to “cross the invisible divide between the gallery and the artwork . . . and themselves, so you’re becoming part of the story in a way, and your hand is losing facility.” It also, naturally, prompts thoughts of penetration and cryogenics.
This harrowing, anxiety-inducing exhibition will surely leave you feeling overloaded. At the same time, it is uplifting. Rather than a conventional display of art, Hiorns’s show is more akin to the work of a scientist placing modern life under close scrutiny as he or she experiments with different combinations of matter. His conclusion appears to be that materials, institutions, and constructs that we commonly assume are stable and predictable might in fact be transformed and transcended.