Roger Hiorns

You’re going to want to try it, so here’s the recipe for Roger Hiorns’s The Birth of the Architect (all works 2003): Take one BMW 8-series car engine and two small cardboard models of cathedrals—preferably Notre Dame and Cologne. Lower into a bath of copper sulfate solution and steep for three consecutive nights, turning occasionally. Remove, shake gently, and serve on a pair of steel plinths set at different heights, with the engine’s cables—now encrusted, like everything else, with sparkling blue crystals—dangling down like an umbilical cord toward the cathedrals. The result should burst sweetly on the palate, then release a range of complex and perhaps contradictory aftertastes. Can you reconcile the dizzying mix of representational registers? Can you square the chronology, in which secular present births spiritual past? If not, try looking at it from a long way away, like maybe Mars. With the bigger picture at hand, an extraterrestrial might be less inclined to draw normative or temporal distinctions and more likely to see an agglomeration of stuff that, down the centuries, earthlings have put faith in (science, industry, religion) or used as hedges against their insignificance.

This latter process has led to some pretty pagan passes—as suggested by The Pleasure Received in Pain, a wall-mounted alabaster carving of mating hares in free fall, one flaunting a tumescent penis that, as if in some ritual cleansing process, has been singed black. (One thinks of Hiorns’s Vauxhall, 2003, recently installed outside Tate Britain, in which purgative flames belched up continuously from a grate; also of the burning of medieval churches, many of whose altarpieces were made from alabaster.) L’Heure bleue, a steel plank with a square cut from its left-hand corner so that it could, at a push, be said to have a head and shoulder, turns representation itself into an act of faith. Emanating the ersatz incense of a commercial perfume from its groin—where a telltale stain darkened the metal—as a votive offering it fails.

There’s no missing the signs in Hiorns’s work of longing for some kind of support, spiritual or otherwise. The latest in a series of works featuring images of children, Fleet Street, a rephotographed black-and-white advertising image in which an older man’s hands reach in to fold the tie of a floppy-haired English schoolboy, speaks of an urge to be parented, or at least to go home. Surveying his oeuvre, though, it seems that Hiorns has been quietly and pragmatically building a kind of dwelling all along: one that, while flaunting an exterior sometimes bedizened like the Emerald City and invariably blessing the eye with weird combinatorial effects, is padded with internal consistencies and so can encompass conflicting drives toward surprise and safety. Hiorns first dipped a pair of model cathedrals in copper sulfate, his trademark material, back in the mid-’90s; he has repeatedly referenced modernist sculpture, particularly that of Antony Caro; several works share the title Vauxhall; there are two contemporaneous, differently coated and titled versions of The Birth of the Architect (the other is called The Architect’s Mother); and so on. Wishing upon a star is fine, he seems to suggest, so long as you have a shelter to retreat into when the night grows cold.

Martin Herbert