Roger Hiorns

Artangel at Harper Road

Having previously coated small models of gothic cathedrals, car engines, and other objects in bright blue copper sulphate crystals, sculptor Roger Hiorns took this technique to virtuosic heights with Seizure, 2008, encrusting an entire apartment wall-to-ceiling in sparkling azure crystals. This startling superimposition of nature onto culture was achieved by first sealing watertight an empty three-room apartment in a 1960s public-housing block condemned for demolition. A hole drilled into the ceiling from the apartment above allowed the artist to pour more than eighteen thousand gallons of the self-transforming liquid, copper sulphate, into the “tank” below. When the apartment was drained about two and a half weeks later, the result was a magical space entirely sheathed in a seamless stretch of thick, gleaming blue crystals. Bare lightbulbs were reborn as jagged, lapis lazuli disco balls; the tub is now like some aquatic goddess’s sapphire bath. Endless allusions to sublime natural phenomena abound: Seizure is a cave; a coral reef; a diamond mine; stars twinkling in outer space; or some glittering, underwater treasure.

Long lines of the curious formed to visit what quickly became a must-see London wonder. Coinciding, as it happens, with the catastrophe occurring in the nearby financial district, Hiorns’s construction—a sprawling expanse of uncontrollable, unpredictable growth based on toxic materials, doomed to collapse and existing parasitically off housing—is eerily prescient. A symbol of the moment, Seizure also suggests some primeval geological past, or the decadent excesses of the nineteenth century, recalling the windowless, overdecorated interiors fantasized in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (Against Nature, 1884), or perhaps some kind of postapocalyptic bunker, its stony walls hyperbolically fortified against whatever perils rage unseen outside.

Dark and airless, this tenement-housing apartment has not been rendered unlivable so much as exposed for how unlivable it always was, what with its oppressively low ceilings, poky rooms, minuscule hallways, and claustrophobic bathroom. Seizure nevertheless perpetuates the love affair that British artists have with the working-class home, from Richard Billingham’s family photos to George Shaw’s quiet paintings of impoverished provincial landscapes. Fifteen years ago, Artangel, the same heroic art-enablers who made Seizure possible, produced Rachel Whiteread’s House, 1993, another monument to the London working-class dwelling. There, in another impressive feat of engineering, the interior of a three-story Victorian row house was cast in concrete. House rendered the air solid while dispensing with the walls; Hiorns inverts the process by rendering the walls rock solid and draining the interior. His grotto is a staggering mix of the dangerous (Careful! Those crystalline edges are razor-sharp!) and the precious, a jewel in a rough neighborhood. Sited near the location where Charles Dickens once observed a crowd’s ravenous enthusiasm for public executions, not far from the scene of a recent teenage knife murder, and with little more than the Thames River separating it from the collapsing financial district, Seizure became a potent epicenter for multiple London legends. Like House, Seizure attracted crowds perhaps unaccustomed to visiting contemporary art galleries. The art world, like the banking world, is an impenetrable and baffling mystery to many. When it’s as spectacular as this, however, everybody gets interested.

Gilda Williams