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Flesh Under Coercion: An Interview With Roger Hiorns
Cathy Wade , January 14th, 2017 10:24

With a new show of his work on display at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, Cathy Wade talks to artist Roger Hiorns about growing up in Birmingham and burying an aeroplane

Roger Hiorns, Installation view at Ikon Gallery (2016). Courtesy of the artist and Ikon

Roger Hiorns’ solo show at Ikon brings together the images and ideas that have concerned his work over the past ten years, at a time when they have a pertinent connection to Birmingham. Hiorns’ made Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), a revising of the traditional evensong at St Phillip’s Cathedral for which the choir lay scattered across the cathedral floor to sing on their backs, in the summer of 2016. The work is now presented as a film for the exhibition, an active component to Untitled (2013) a deconsecrated pulverised granite stone altar stone amassed on the floor of the upper gallery. He is currently working with Ikon to realise plans to bury a Boeing 737 in Icknield Port Loop, an inner city area with legacies of industrialism, migration, and regeneration. Here Cathy Wade interviews him to discuss his present working practice, its relationship with the body, and how art needs to be engaged in the present climate.

You talk about the show as being a collage, a sense of materials coming together from different points, ideas and works. How do these elements come together?

I’ve reached a point where there is an accumulation of work, that has gathered steam in the last few years. Personally, I just want to present thinking. Present the idea that thinking, thinking, thinking, goes on, and is the animation of the work. My thinking activities are present in the artwork, and that this somehow supersedes the question of the middle-minded, the “What is this” that I, and I assume, most artists are asked. The sum total, the conglomeration of these works, is a kind of too much, and too much is really important to me right now.

The viewer becomes very relative with this show, they come into a space in which they haven’t got this immediate tangibility of things. Where do they fit with this mood?

Exactly! Where do they fit with this mood? Maybe I represent the outlier of the liberal identification, and this self-identification becomes quite a complex proposal now. I support the human and its progress, and so the show itself is a discussion of how the body is under pressure. How the flesh is under forms of coercion, that there is a systemic violence underpinning our relations, and this comes into focus in my work with the Variant CJD subject. This pressure is reinforced by the presence of the naked youths, their being-ness is present on various objects, like the crushed altar stone, the x-ray machine, and the military jet engine. Somewhere here is an idea of the display of values, my western idea of values. Importantly, not the narrow values that seem to be all that is required by an ever-narrowing art world to its audience. Art now is to layer significance, on the ways to truthfully develop our historical and evolutionary self-consciousness. We are now seeing that we are at a crossroads about what that means.

An insane crossroads. That’s where it becomes fascinating with a work like Untitled(2013), the pulverised altar stone – that decommissioning, dismantling, and taking apart. This point where it feels like so many value systems are actively being tackled out in the open.

Definitely, the process of thinking about and then doing. The atomization of a religious focal point. An object, its architecture, philosophy and identity as the altar. I wanted to simply apply a strategy towards it, in order for it to become more of a form of plurality rather than a single punctum of authority. The pluralism of form is the sand and dust that the altar has now become. The first stage of the work was to show it at Venice in the Biennale. It was commissioned for the event. Then there was a sense of movement to what the next stage of what this sand might represent, which was in having a naked youth present within it. This sand material, that over many centuries had been the focus of devotion as a primary form, a cuboid of dense faith and the focus of prayer. The sand and the dust – we are talking about a material that has inner significance, the altar was a focus and container of ritual and faithful devotion. How do we look to where meaning might allow us to have a more sophisticated and truthful relationship to the world? The ideas held in neo-liberalism, they don’t allow for the body and the human to fully realise potential.

Roger Hiorns, Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway) (2016), St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, Photography by Marcin Szymczak, Ilona Zielinska. Courtesy the artist and Ikon

There’s a sense in this work of the introduction of the body as material. While the materials age, the body is a constant point of reference. You come back to ideas of religion, combat and warfare, systems and their existence within systems.

How the body and how the human gets caught up in those systems. Essentially we are coerced to find our lives amongst the objects that we make. If we start at the beginning and think about the idea of what sculpture-making might represent. The earliest lesson in forming a sculpture, when you put an object in a room or an environment, you’re creating a power relationship. This object that you can’t touch, but you can judge it and you can criticise it. You can’t talk to it, but it does communicate its values. So be careful. If you establish a relationship with it, it can ask you to maintain the status quo it represents. It wants you to agree to its colour, it wants you to recognise its sophisticated choices of material, and its form is a game that is never really very new. Objects – especially art objects – have a good way of maintaining established authority. And if you see it in a museum, it's essentially won the game – for the time being. But this ‘winning’ can be addressed, and a way to re-think this is gaining traction.

It’s an interesting act to bring something back to the place where you came from without a sense that this connection has to be manifested. I'm reminded of Longbridge at the time of the Shadow Factory, that ‘other space’ in which things were manufactured.

I grew up in central Birmingham and its key identity, was that it was a city that made things. Longbridge was a place that I would pass on the way to school every day. So you would see the vast sheds, the automated bridges that would ship cars from one side of the bypass to the other. It was part of the vast interconnected industrial landscape. You were deeply impressed by the remarkable scale of manufacture. So, does it became part of your psychology? This idea of unlimited production seemed to be a fascinating prospect. That the action and the circumstances of making are more important than the product, we know this. I came back after Longbridge had been demolished and saw it as a landscape. The buildings had been removed and all you saw was the tapestry of shop floors and their foundations.

That painful very long dismantling of British industry.

Very painful, like you said. I left when I was fifteen and I’ve been in London longer than I’ve been in Birmingham. I grew up here and have formative memories from here, and maybe I drew on a few of these buried memories. The Turn of the Screw was a mood I drew on, the opera by Benjamin Britten. I rehearsed for the part of Miles here in Birmingham. It represented a complex group of ideas to put on a ten-year-old, very dark. A re-visitation, a possession. Conversations about the buried airplane were intriguing to have, about the piece of land. Yet again, another piece of post-industrial land, but close to where I would rehearse the bits of the music.

Within the territory of Icknield Port Loop, there is a huge sense of layering. Phillis Nicklin photographing the post-war urban landscape for teaching resources at Birmingham University. The canal network that’s become something else, land in a liminal state, neither one or the other.

It’s very local and neglected piece of land in a famously neglected area. Again, I used to grow up around there. There was a pub there that was incredibly shabby, but you would meet pretty French Communists. Exchange students lodging there and studying at the university have always lived in the area. It was very cosmopolitan and transient at the same time. So you would go to the Bricklayer’s and they would tell you why their laces were red. There was a fascinating local internationalism to the area, which now presents itself as a place of high migrancy.

The plane being buried becomes an act of preservation for that landscape.

It certainly is an important part of the composition of the work. We are going to peel back the skin of the land and place a global object underneath it. Then, seeing what that means in terms of how the community interpret this extreme proposal. I’m not going to be prescriptive and foreshorten the experience with too much up front interpretation. I would also add, that the work is a global idea. There are numbers of aircraft being considered for burial, and one already completed in the west of the UK. Birmingham is a node in a global network of buried aircraft, each of these aircraft has different reasons to exist. Birmingham is by far the most ambitious variant in the most loaded of sites.

The materiality of your work consists of things already in the world. You’re not going to be spending endless hours manufacturing, crafting, making, revising. These processes in many ways have happened, so it’s about elaboration.

I was never going to ache over the presentation of a surface. Maybe what I’m trying to underline, through accepting where we currently are, is that I am trying to resist further surface making and allow a language of resistance. The penetration of the surface is more important now, and the jet plane is a super literal investigation into penetrating the surface of reality as well as the land and putting a key piece of our charged reality into the ground. A further reality, is letting the people complete the buried plane, not as viewers but as containers of the experience of this strange but relevant modern ritual. For me, the key thing about the burial is the process of description as an action. That what may follow is, through this understanding of today's new behaviours, we might be able to establish the next version of the future.

One of the works I wanted to discuss was Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), its rearranging the body to lie horizontally during evensong.

RH: The optimism of this work is essential, it is a work of granted permissions. We talked to the Church, to Catherine Ogle, the Dean of Birmingham Cathedral – quite a radical figure within the church. It was fascinating for her to consider the other ways of working with the church, as an artist proposing new behaviours. For her to agree to do it is a continuation of a radical kind of thinking. Other cathedrals had been approached, other Deans had been talked to, but this idea up to now has never really materialised. Catherine was key to having this happen. Essentially the laying down of the whole choir, on their backs, and singing the full service of evensong. Their bodies scattered around the full body of the cathedral, rather than simply as ranks of a choir.

There’s something important that happens when art has that amount of adaptability. It’s just as every single evensong would happen, except there’s this intervention into the space, a very real moment in which something is altered.

It was a very real moment. It was a real and observed religious service. The reality of the Christian religious experience was being presented in front of us, and so this wasn’t an example of synthetic performance art as such. It was the other – the devotional – re-attuned into something else. This kind of thing can actually happen if trust is established. So far, two evensongs have been re-presented in this new way. There’s a possibility of permanence, which would be interesting if Birmingham Cathedral adopted this for a Wednesday evensong, say, randomly, for example, every July the 25th, once every year. That we can add to the mystery of the devotional ritual with our laying choir. Over time, over centuries the reason we do this will be forgotten, but the ritual will persist, and its significance will widen and become universal.

Roger Hiorns' exhibition is at Ikon, Birmingham, until 5 March