Thursday, 6 November 2008

An Ice Bar for Dead Souls

Roger Hiorns’ Seizure is the third Artangel project, after Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) and Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Scheider (2004) to use a domestic London space as its canvas. It’s worth contrasting the three pieces. When Whiteread materialized the inside of a Victorian house in Bow, it was her foregrounding of the subtle traces of familial life – a scrap of wallpaper or the imprint of a light fitting – that enabled the work to speak so eloquently of the past. Likewise, when Schneider mirrored a family home across two adjacent houses in Whitechapel, the work drew much of its power from a forensic reconstruction of the details of bourgeois privacy and its traumas.

The context and procedures of Hiorns’ piece could not be more different. We move from the East End (an area of London whose poetic resources have surely peaked after years of overexploitation) to what is by comparison the Terra Nullis of Walworth in South-East London. Rather than the previous projects’ Victorian houses, one enters the courtyard of a two-story block of 12 council flats, part of the Lawson Estate, a mixed development of high and low-rise housing typical of the 1970s. As with Whiteread’s house, the block is due for demolition, but instead of summoning East End ghosts, these scrofulous facades and weed-choked gutterings materialize the decay of the dream of public housing.

After collecting your regulation rubber boots you enter one of the flats. Straight in front of you, at the end of a short hallway, lies what must have been the living room, which Hiorns has left unaltered, its atmosphere that of neglect and entropy prized by pychogeographers. So prized in fact, that it’s become a cliché, which is what makes Hiorn’s piece such a timely departure. For while walking towards the melancholic living room one glimpses to the right its absolute antithesis.

The rest of the flat is furred with blue crystals, finger-thick, poking out from walls and blocking windows so that the only light comes from small spots on the ceiling. The uneven floor is pooled with a sump of the copper-sulphate with which Hiorns coated the rooms four weeks ago, and one can hear the suck and plash of other wellied visitors. This, together with the blue aquarium light, produces an immersive, underwater affect, with the crystals seeming to crust around you like a reef of impossible polar coral. The dankness and coldness of the space thus soon belies its initial sparkling attractiveness. What had seemed a kitschy cave becomes a mineralized womb, an ice bar for dead souls.

One attempts to allay this discomfiture by tracing elements of the original room. Hence the waist-high, horizontal band of crystal must be the moulding you noticed in the living room, while this quartz rose hanging from the ceiling was once a light-shade. At every turn, however, the urge to reterritorialize the space is frustrated by the multi-planar surface of the crystals. The gaze is distracted, unable to settle, continually relayed from point to point.

Once again it is worth contrasting this tension with the hermeneutic that the Whiteread and Schneider projects, in their different ways, encouraged. Both of the latter implied a forensic, metonymic reading, with the meaning of the whole dependent upon the cumulative, incremental registration of minute traces of a lived existence. Hiorns takes the opposite approach. His crystals have colonised the flat to efface any sense of the details of lived material histories, substituting instead a sumptuous, tactile surface that activates a series of pop-cultural registers: pound-shop baroque, pulp fairy-tales, B-movie alchemy.

In doing so Hiorns successfully eliminates the dangers that can threaten work which attempts to document repressed or forgotten lives through the textures of the built environment. Pious notions of authenticity, or a pseudo-elegiac pathos of memory dissolve here in the face of the opulence and high drama of the flat’s interior. Social realism is dialectically undermined by science-fiction and vice-versa. Yet it is in this very movement, through the void the piece opens up between familiar genres and strategies, that it so precisely attends to the unfathomable strangeness of other people’s lives.

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