Roger Hiorns


The first time I met Roger Hiorns was in his art-school studio in the mid-’90s. I asked him what he was doing and he told me, without any explanation or justification, that he was growing copper sulfate crystals. Something pure, geometrically clear-cut, and graspable was solidifying out of liquid incoherence in the beaker before his eyes. Perhaps the basic school-boy chemistry involving the transformation from one state to another was providing a physical parallel to the more problematic and far-reaching concern with what occurs when something becomes art.

Hiorns’s recent show appeared to further complicate the relationship between reality and aspiration by introducing the difficult question of how to accomplish such transformative acts while operating under the weight of historical precedent and social expectation (all works 2001): two large triangular wooden frames mounted on the wall, a small pencil drawing, and a centrally placed sculpture. The frames, being carefully made in oak, are impressively luxurious objects held an inch or so off the wall by short rods fixed to the midpoint of each side. The coming afflictions suffered for the dirt of love is made from wood with a circular cross section, while that of the slightly larger It’s they, me or the red hawthorne tree, which faces it across the gallery, is pentagonal. Framing nothing but an empty area of the wall, their shape and formal precision lead one to see them structures more than as images, and they carry substantial albeit unspecific symbolic weight. (The spelling of “hawthorne,” for instance, took me toward the socially restrictive and morally compromised world of Hester Prynne, although I subsequently found out that such thinking was a happy accident occasioned by a typographical error.) Some enlightenment is offered by the drawing, which, mounted just inside the room in a triangular orange-red frame, seems to provide a kind of key. Titled Working out for The coming afflictions suffered for the dirt of love, it shows three boys in different poses, each of which is indicative of mental and spiritual activity rather than physical engagement with the environment. One sits cross-legged, surrounded, St. Francis-like, by a menagerie of small mammals and birds; another leans back, an unread piece of paper hanging loosely in his hand; and the third looks dreamily into the distance. In the center, knitting them together, is a graphic device containing the letters HSA. Home Space Available is a sort of housing association, an idea on which Hiorns has been working for some time, and out of which he hopes to realize, or rather crystallize, the model of a kind of space in which to house a variety of useful, artistic, and spiritual objects—which is to say, his art.

The sculpture, Temporary construction to hidden obligations, is one object that might be found in this imagined space. A structure of black-enameled sheet steel, it comprises a trapezium with chamfered corners sitting in front of a rectangle and three disks. Its formal similarity with Anthony Caro’s Twenty Four Hours is unmistakable, although the original was made from metal plate and had only one disk. That 1960 sculpture is the first of the painted, welded constructions Caro made following a visit to the United States—an iconic work, establishing, among other things, both a certain sense of abstraction and the idea of frontality in the viewer’s relation to sculptural form. Temporary construction to hidden obligations, a sort of Twenty Four Hours with added Mickey Mouse ears, muddies and profanes this history while acknowledging its significance. Walking behind it to discover the exact disposition of the various elements, we see how delicately its depthlessness has been assembled and at the same time realize to what degree usefulness, the aesthetic, and a yearning for the spiritual remain bound together.

Michael Archer