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Image of Untitled silver by Roger Hiorns
Roger Hiorns, Untitled silver. Photo © Dr Jim Roseblade

Roger Hiorns

Works exhibited: BunniesUntitled Silver.

Perhaps the most subtly disturbing aspect of Roger Hiorns’ art is that it requires more from the viewer than mere viewing. Most exhibits in galleries and museums make no direct claim on us, they participate in the ceremonies of polite deference typical of the habits we cultivate in such places, but they do not interfere in our presence there. Many of Hiorns’ sculptures demand more than a merely visual exercise, they tug at our other senses, specifically at our senses of smell and touch.

Propped against the wall in Upper Hall is one of several works in which Hiorns has combined the hardness and durability of steel plate with the ductility and impermanence of fluids, ranging from disinfectant to perfume. The unfixed and apparently provisional character of the installation calls to mind the act of placing it there, with imaginative estimates of weight, balance, and the positioning of the hands.

That initial interaction with the work, physical rather than conceptual, is only imagined although it has the character of an event. The viewer does not witness it, any more than they witness the application of fluid, which needs to be replenished at regular intervals. This physical relationship with the sculpture is experienced only indirectly, although it governs the viewer’s awareness of the scope of the work, which supplements the usual encounter with art through an activity that has a ritual, almost votive, aspect.

The severely geometrical form of the installation suggests an origin in the modernist tradition, with its emphasis on abstraction, impersonality, rational form, while the addition of a strong smelling fluid gives the work a sensuous immediacy that undermines all those priorities. When the fluid is perfume, with its overtones of seduction and intimacy, this structural ambivalence is enhanced; when it is disinfectant, attraction gives way to repulsion, desire to its suppression – but in either case the same contradictory dynamic is evoked.

The fluid is applied more or less at the midpoint of these vertical forms, roughly where the genitals would be in a human figure. Hiorns’ willingness to draw these icons of technological modernity into the world of impulse seems confirmed in the present instance by their proximity to the aluminium sculpture, Bunnies. This stylised representation of animals proverbially identified with sexual coupling is reminiscent in form of a medieval roof boss, with the figures coiled round each other in an exclusive focus on their mututal disposition: an ambiguous expression of embrace or conflict.

Hiorns’ interest in ritual predominates in the new work he has installed next to the door of the Chapel. This rectangular sheet of silver functions as a tabula rasa on which to record the rhythms of passage into and out of the historic and conceptual centre of the College. The Chapel is an epitome of a community organising itself around temporal patterns, in an architectural space that gives historical depth to the continuity of certain rituals. Silver is a relatively volatile metal that reacts readily to changes of atmosphere and takes the impress of inadvertent contact, making it ideal as the basis for a palimpsest of our customary ways of inhabiting duration.

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