Hammer Projects: Roger Hiorns

Sep 11, 2003–Jan 18, 2004 This is a past exhibition

This exhibition features three new works by young British artist Roger Hiorns, including two that were created specifically for this presentation. The sculptures explore the transformation of material and the intersection of the abstract and the literal. A number of Hiorns’s works include immaterial and impermanent media such as fire, soap, or perfume – and its related scent. Others contain objects such as thistles, model cathedrals, and car engines encrusted with bright blue crystals. To crystallize the pieces, Hiorns dips the objects in a copper sulfate bath, seemly to relating art to alchemy, thereby throwing the status of art objects and artists into sharp relief.

Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.


Roger Hiorns was born in Birmingham, England, in 1975. Currently he lives and works in London. He studied art at Bournville College, Birmingham, and Goldsmiths College, London, receiving his B.A. in 1996. Recent shows include Art Now on the Sculpture Court at the Tate Britain and exhibitions at Marc Foxx, Los Angeles, and Corvi-Mora, London. In the past two years his work has also been included in group shows organized by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile, and the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts, both in London, among others, Articles about his work have appeared in Artforum, Frieze, Contemporary, Modern Painters, Art Monthly, Artext, and other publications.


By Siobahn McDevitt

When Roger Hiorns mentioned to me several months ago that he was going to make a figurative sculpture involving a large chain, I primitively visualized a statue in shackles. I should have known better: Hiorns's new piece The Architect's Mother (2003) most certainly deals with figuration, and with a chain, but more on that later. I should have known better because I had a similar experience a few years ago after seeing The coming afflictions suffered for the dirt of love (2001), a big, beautiful wooden triangle elegantly, and almost imperceptibly, fixed to the wall. I had heard Hiorns was making another one "with crystal" and wrongly imagined the same structure executed not in wood but in gleaming crystal, a la Baccarat. So I was surprised by the other The coming afflictions suffered for the dirt of love (2001), Hirons's "crystal" piece, which was made of painted metal tubing with bright blue copper sulfate crystals grown on the triangle's three points. I have subsequently gotten used to being wrong about Hiorns much of the time, or at least to having the rug pulled out from under me, although his work doesn't take cheap shots. It's just that truly original thought, let alone truly original art, can be startling.

That's not to say that Hiorns doesn't bear some art historical weight on his shoulders, because he does. In fact, his sculptures have taken the readymade as an explicit point of departure. In Two Forms Yellow and Brown (1999), ceramic pots made by a colleague hang from the ceiling, intermittently sprouting streams of foamy detergent bubbles that flow impotently toward the floor. In Copper Sulfate Chatres Copper Sulfate Notre Dame (1997), Hiorns grew crystal on cardboard architectural maquettes, their Gothic intricacies sparkling with blue mineral formations. His work repeatedly investigates this nexus of material and form, often testing the mutability of and object's usefulness of significance and its appearance: could an architectural model laden with bright crystals somehow come closer to the experience of an actual cathedral? In more recent work the incorporated readymade is not commissioned or store-bought but collected from nature: thistles encrusted with copper sulfate crystals and fixed with velcro hang from tall steel poles in Vauxhall and Discipline (both 2003). 

Crystallized thistles appear again in Intelligence and Sacrifice (2003), not hanging from steel poles, but strung across the face of a perforated steel panel. The perforated panel, in turn, works as the front layer of a corrugated steel pyramid flanked by more steel disks and panels. Hiorns's pyramid itself is a repeated form, executed in thistle and perforated steel in one case, but in unadorned reflective stainless steel or matte black enamel-coated steel in other cases. With each mutation, whether through the steel finish or the arrangement of panels and disks, Hiorns links the structures to one another and, geometrically, to the large wall with triangles with which they have been displayed. It's they, me or the red hawthorne tree (2001) is an isosceles triangle fashioned of smooth, tubular oak with a pentagonal cross-section. (And there are two variations on The coming afflictions suffered for the dirt of love, one oak and one metal with copper sulfate crystals.)

Hiorns's repeated titles deserve some attention. Often long and cryptics poetics phrases—sometimes, but not always, drawn from songs or album titles—his titles get at the arbitrariness not only of naming a work but also of names themselves. Take Vauxhall, a title he has used for different pieces. If the word Vauxhall can mean, among other things, a London tube stop, the seventeenth-century pleasure garden for which the tube stop is named, a car company, a Morrissey record, and a Roger Hiorns sculpture—never mind that, phonetically, it is the Russian word for "train" (voksal)—then why can't Vauxhall (now the title) mean discrete works of art? On an object level, why can't steel, since it appears in Vauxhall, be understood to be fulfilling a different material potential each time?

That material could even seem to express its potential reveals an apparent metaphysical desire in Hiorns's work to make sense of the world—to reckon the natural with the industrial, the mundane with the poetic—to find, or define, the correspondence of a material (thistle, oak, steel) to its aesthetic form. Even strictly formal attributes are not left to wander decoratively, but are harnessed by their evocation of a devotional attitude—taken further, the pentagon running the length of It's they, me... becomes pentagram, black magic coursing through druid oak. For Vauxhall (2003), recently installed at Tate Britain's outdoor sculpture court, Hiorns installed a steel sidewalk grate that breathes fire. Resonant of ritual purity and eternal memory, Vauhalls's undirected fire displaces the geometric tendency of much of Hiorns's art and nevertheless reinforces his attention to the psychic order of things.

And so to The Architect's Mother. Or not yet. Hiorns's figurative investigations have yielded steel sheets stained with perfume on the crotch area. Importantly, the bottle of perfume stays with the sculpture so that it can be ritually sprayed. Vauxhall (2003) wears First, a perfume Hions noticed during an actual conversation with an actual person, which led him to create not just a figure but a portrait drawn from memory. For Creed (2003), Hiorns was attracted by the perfume's name, in this case creating the imaginary portrait of the person who wears a perfume as a statement of belief.

It is this imagined portrait, and not a literal one, that informs The Architect's Mother. The readymade is not so humble this time around: it's a BMW 8-series car engine. The engine, now Hiorns-ized with copper sulfate crystals, becomes the figure of the architect's mother through an applied set of characteristics—"top of the line," precision, good design, power—and not through an imagined human being. Housed beneath the crystallized, well-engineered mother, the imagined future architect gestates, its personality ambitiously incarnated in the form of copper sulfate cathedrals. This genetic, or crystal, chain linking the imagined mother and architect is not unique to them, but runs throughout Hiorns's body of work. The true common link is, of course, Hiorns, who may be tipping his hand from a slight remove, imagining the self-portrait of an imagined artist.

Siobahn McDevitt lives in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Frieze, and Vanity Fair.

Hammer Projects are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and members of the Hammer Circle.

This exhibition received additional assistance from the British Council.

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