The Ikon and Birmingham-born artist Roger Hiorns will present a comprehensive survey of his work 7 December 2016 until 5 March 2017. During this time, Hiorns will create a site-specific work for Birmingham Cathedral in June 2016 and plans to bury an aeroplane in Birmingham for summer 2017.
Hiorns, through his influential art making, proposes a new pathway into how artists can continue to make and behave. Through the transformation of materials and chosen objects, Hiorns focuses on various aspects of modern life – often through current affairs – closely analysing what is assumed or taken for granted. His works involve growing vast amounts of copper sulphate crystals on objects including car engines and domestic interiors, paintings made from brain matter – an exploration of the origins of the disease vCJD – jet engines containing anti-depressant drugs and a boys’ choir performing whilst lying flat. He explains, “You always have to think about materials and objects in terms of being malleable – you have to cut them off from what their established use is, to directly interfere with their world-ness, it becomes a process of human empowerment to re-use and re-propose the power of objects simply left lying in the street.”
Hiorns’ sustained preoccupation with the malleability and instability of objects and materials is demonstrated both by transformations – with an understanding that these might be more perceived than real – and embodied in processes that lead to finished works: chemical solutions become walk-through installations (for example in his Turner Prize-nominated artwork Seizure, 2008/13) or sophisticated machines are pulverised into powder.
On 15 and 17 June Hiorns presents his first major off-site project with Ikon, Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), working with the choir of St Philip’s Cathedral Birmingham. Rather than standing to sing in stalls in front of the altar, the event will see choristers undertake Choral Evensong whilst lying on their backs on the floor, within the body of the church. The event will be a full service rather than a performance – led by The Very Revd Catherine Ogle, Dean of Birmingham and directed by Canon Marcus Huxley – with the congregation seated in the aisles and galleries. The event raises important questions concerning the nature of the aesthetics of faith and worship in modern life; in its re-imagining of ancient ritual the service becomes reflective of the uncertainty of the present.
The arrangement of Hiorns’ choir, conventionally organised in neat rows, plays with perceptions of life and death and sleep and consciousness: a human’s horizontality being read as a submission to gravity – linked with sleep and death – in contrast to verticality as a sign of life, consciousness and volition. This concept is reaffirmed in Edward Burne-Jones’ stained glass windows at the western end of the Cathedral. Depicting the Last Judgment, the panes show Christian souls rising up from their graves on their way to the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven.
The cathedral as a motif will also appear within Hiorns’ Ikon exhibition. In a very early work from 2003, titled before the rain, the artist presents a model of a cathedral encrusted with copper sulphate crystals. Both works exemplify a restlessness with respect to a revered institution, part of an establishment that defines our society. Through his work Hiorns articulates a comparable scepticism towards the art world as an establishment – he analyses and dismantles these systems through a process similar to his examination of machines.
Jet engines often occur in Hiorns’ work. By injecting a US military aircraft engine with anti-depressants, he toys with the possibility of affecting some kind of robotic nervous system, reflecting his ongoing interest in the anthropomorphism of machinery. In his Youth series (1999 to the present), the encounters between a jet engine and a naked young man suggest not only mysterious communion, but also melancholy. Ripped from the wing of an aeroplane, and partly dismantled, the engine is positioned like a remnant from classical antiquity, instilling awe as if being contemplated at some point in the distant future when air travel as we now know it no longer exists. The aircraft pieces become mementi mori for humanity as a whole, reminders of what will ultimately become of us and all our modern achievements, a philosophy revisited in Hiorns’ second off-site project with Ikon: Untitled (buried passenger aircraft).
Planned for summer 2017, the temporary piece of public art will involve a Boeing 737 interred on the island bounded by Icknield Port Loop – part of Birmingham’s canal network. A construct of dramatic understatement, the piece is a literal grounding of something once airborne. The juxtaposition between the latent speed of the aircraft, against the slow pace of circling canal boats, alludes to the evolution of Birmingham from the Industrial Revolution to the new order of a globalised service economy. The installation becomes like a cautionary tale, an updated version of the Icarus myth. The artist explains,
“The work will be a continuation of my exploration of the dominant objects of the world. Simply the work is a process; the transgression of the object will release a new variation within this familiar and powerful thing. My motive in burying the plane is to introduce a new territory to the world, and to encourage the mind to be present in a new place, surreal and at odds with general accepted realities, this new object very literally tears through the established order and the established surfaces of our present reality.”
Top: Roger Hiorns Untitled, 2011 Jet engine and youth Courtesy the artist and Ikon