Writing: Fissure

by Brian Dillon


There’s no order outside the order of the material. — Robert Smithson, Fragments of a Conversation (1969)

On a first visit in August 2008, some weeks before the work is left to its own occulted and alchemical devices, the site of Roger Hiorns’s Seizure looks already as though it encloses a secret of sorts. A modest cloister of late-Modernist design, the flat complex on Harper Road is half-hidden behind a bruise-purple hoarding, its upper storey flaking as if unused to the sunlight, the whole rising to no more than tree height among buildings of more ambitious upward thrust and implacable, unreadable aspect. The block of flats directly across the road has its entrances turned away from the traffic; scaffolding fronts the hundred or so dwellings that loom over the site on the other side. It seems decidedly interstitial: a human-scale development insinuated, almost as an afterthought, among the starker experiments in social housing. The complex turns in upon itself, sheltering its (now departed) community against the chaos of the city.

It is not only because of its late abandonment, or the knowledge of its forthcoming demolition, that once seen from inside the fence the structure seems to open up, to disarticulate into its skeletal components of concrete, glass and steel. Rather, one has the sense immediately of a place in process, not so much derelict (despite the boarded doors and windows, the plaques of rust and spalled concrete) as half-built and heading towards an as yet uncertain future. A kind of reverse archaeology is under way. Over on the left, at the busiest point, certain strata of the building have been stripped away and already replaced with alien materials, such as the metal mesh that will support the crystals. The interior is being mined for a secret that does not yet exist.

The building at 151 – 189 Harper Road recalls an anxious and conflicted moment in the history of social housing in Britain, and points more precisely to a sudden loss of faith in Modernism. Built in the wake of the great Brutalist housing projects of the 1960s, it evinces a turn to smaller scales and less audacious visions of the future of urban community. By the end of the 1960s, even architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson, pioneers in Britain of the Le Corbusier-inspired residential megastructure, had begun to design for a low-rise (but still high-density) conception of city dwelling. There is nothing monumental, still less ‘iconic’, about Harper Road. It seems, to put it too crudely, essentially English in its scale and its subtle nostalgia for a pre-war, even provincial, sort of Modernism: certain rounded corners remind one of the pallid seaside structures of the 1930s. It exists at the periphery of an architectural culture already unsure of its relation to Corbusian rationalism.

In this sense, Harper Road is the ideal site for Hiorns’s intervention: a structure whose place in architectural and urban history is tenuous, even negligible, thus tangential to the simple opposition of materials and forms that the gesture of the work might at first suggest. By contrast, the location the artist first canvassed for crystallisation – part of the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, East London, a building recently denied listing by English Heritage – might well have bruited too loudly the juxtaposition of crystal and concrete, the decay of a ‘failed’ building and the sci-fi strangeness of the invading substance. And yet, Seizure (with all the violent connotations of that title) cannot but call to mind the fate of the more monstrous avatars of Harper Road: buildings now widely deprecated and in danger of demolition. Among the work’s effects is to conjure a dreamscape of British Brutalism cracked and faulted, a once-gleaming future reduced to a grey vista of mineral rubble.

The physical process that is both part of Seizure and of its pre-history also risks a kind of destruction: the violence of a very visible failure, the possibility that nothing will happen beyond the slow settling of an inert sludge. This danger is of course part of the work itself. The equipment arrayed in advance of the chemical inundation of the flat at Harper Road – a complication of tanks, pipes, funnels and other conduits for mixing and transporting the copper sulphate solution – surrounds what is essentially a black box: the empty and unknowable centre of activity in which the work is ‘made’. Here, in the dark, the work composes itself. The artist, having painstakingly contrived the moment of truth (if we can risk a phrase that conjures the magician or charlatan), retreats and allows the ‘autogenic’ action to unfold.

At this point, a number of time-lines converge, clash and diverge again in unpredictable directions. The artist’s labour, physical and psychological, comes to an abrupt halt while he is left to imagine the slow growth of the object; the history of the building and its type is weirdly compacted to a single, occluded, point in space; the chemical reaction itself begins (or so one hopes) and something unprecedented and only partly planned occurs. There is a kind of shuttling here, in advance of the revelation of the interior, between the immediate future and a reminder of deep geological time. The flat complex becomes a time machine, driven by a hidden crystal energy. At the same time, precisely at the moment the space is sealed, it begins to leak metaphors and meanings that the artist, immured in the process, had perhaps hoped to seal away out of sight.

Seizure flirts with certain venerable narratives about crystals, architecture, space and time. Of the scientific and aesthetic stories that attached to crystals in the nineteenth century, none is more sharply defined in the Victorian imagination than the idea of an enclosed and crystalline world – an inviolate universe that, paradoxically, turns out also to be a portal to other worlds and other times. In general, the novels of Jules Verne, for example, describe eccentric versions of the bourgeois interior set adrift in time and space: plush enclosures that can travel beneath the oceans, through the air or even to the moon, allowing their passengers to encounter the vast unknown without ever straying too far from their air-locked floating libraries.

The exception is A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Here the travellers descend into an interior appointed in kitsch splendour – we might say that the planet itself becomes a spacecraft or a time machine. Verne describes the sight that greets his protagonists as they explore the depths of an Icelandic volcano:

That which formed steps under our feet became stalactites overhead. The lava, which was porous in many places, had formed a surface covered with small rounded blisters; crystals of opaque quartz, set with limpid tears of glass, and hanging like clustered chandeliers from the vaulted roof, seemed as it were to kindle and form a sudden illumination as we passed on our way. It seemed as if the genii of the depths were lighting up their palace to receive their terrestrial guests.

What the guests uncover, before emerging again in southern Italy, is a fanciful world of living fossils: ancient mammals and even dinosaurs. But the substance of the planet itself, more plausibly, contains its own crystalline archive – the earth, it seems, is made of compacted time.

According to the elaborate account ventured by John Ruskin in The Ethics of the Dust (1866), the earth also conceals in the form of crystals certain hardened allegories of the moral life. In a series of playful (not to say bizarre) dialogues with a group of schoolgirls, Ruskin outlines his crystalline ethics:

… their goodness consisted chiefly in purity of substance, and perfectness of form: but those are rather the EFFECTS of their goodness, than the goodness itself. The inherent virtues of the crystals, resulting in these outer conditions, might really seem to be best described in the words we should use respecting living creatures – ‘force of heart’ and ‘steadiness of purpose’. There seem to be in some crystals, from the beginning, an unconquerable purity of vital power, and strength of crystal spirit. Whatever dead substance, unacceptant of this energy, comes in their way, is either rejected, or forced to take some beautiful subordinate form; the purity of the crystal remains unsullied, and every atom of it bright with coherent energy.

The mature crystal, on this reading, is obdurate, inviolable, self-identical – even its secondary growths or ramifications are merely decorative adjuncts to the achieved core.

But the crystal is also – and here we get closer again to the logic of Hiorns’s process – an image of expansion, growth and transformation: it ceaselessly replicates itself and encrusts any surface that it touches. This sense of the crystal as at once efflorescent and ruinous is at work in a number of texts (and artworks) by Robert Smithson: notably his essay ‘The Crystal Land’, published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1966. Exploring the ex-urban wastelands of his native New Jersey, Smithson comments: ‘the entire landscape has a mineral presence. From the shiny chrome diners to glass windows of shopping centres, a sense of the crystalline prevails.’ In the company of Donald Judd, his wife Julie and Smithson’s wife Nancy Holt, he descends into Great Notch Quarry:

Cracked, broken, shattered; the walls threatened to come crashing down. Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration, rock creep debris, slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence. The grey sky seemed to swallow up the heaps around us. Fractures and faults spilled forth sediment, crushed conglomerates, eroded debris and sandstone. It was an arid region, bleached and dry. An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction. A chaos of cracks surrounded us.

Smithson’s crystal land is essentially a ruin, but a ruin that points as much to the dissolution of the future as to the persistence of the past. The crystal no longer stands for the future perfectibility of the soul or of society, but is evidence and allegory for the shivering apart of all such utopian visions. The desiccated earth is inseparable from the crystalline products of contemporary technology, the New Jersey shop-fronts are wavering mirages over mounds of rubble. Smithson describes this dialectical landscape precisely in terms of the fate of the architecture of the late 1960s. In his 1967 Artforum essay ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, he had already written of a ‘zero panorama’ that ‘seemed to contain ruins in reverse’,

... that is – all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scène suggests the discredited idea of time and many other ‘out of date’ things. But the suburbs exist without a rational past and without the ‘big events’ of history. Oh, maybe there are a few statues, a legend, and a couple of curios, but no past – just what passes for a future. A Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass.

Between Ruskin’s conception of the crystal as moral touchstone and Smithson’s of a crystalline ruin, Modernism dreams of a crystal architecture. Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace provides the model: a building in which, claims the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the very air itself is visible as a bluish haze. (The Crystal Palace, in this sense, is merely an extension of the Victorian obsession with glassed-in atmospheres and ecosystems: greenhouses, aquariums, museum cabinets containing violent tableaux from nature.) This fantasy of total enclosure, of the building as a transparent, impermeable envelope, was extended by Sergei Eisenstein, who planned to make a film entirely set in a vast glass house of his own design, and brought to its absurd conclusion by Yves Klein in his project for an ‘air architecture’. It would be finally possible, thought Klein, to dispense with the substance of architecture entirely, and roof our dwellings with jets of air and water or wall ourselves away behind sheets of fire. Architecture would become force rather than form. We would live within a nexus of pure energy, our eyes continually open to the sky and the blue of distance.

It is too tempting to fuse Hiorns’s blue crystals historically to the blue of Klein’s monochromes. Klein’s is ultimately an art and thought of transcendence; Hiorns professes himself allergic to such ambitions, even as his works seem to promise a sacred or enchanted relation to the object. Seizure, he says, is not about beauty; nor does it court the sort of symbolism with which his chosen material, the blue crystal, seems to be saturated. Hiorns’s immersion in the process, his trusting to the material, his absenting himself from the scene of the work’s production: all of this suggests instead an artist who is more interested in the subtraction of significance – ‘the desire fundamentally is not to be stricken with meaning’. The ravishing result of the chemical reaction is merely one more stage in the construction of a specific state of mind: a rigorously organised disavowal of authorial control.

At the same time, Seizure is surely so freighted with significance and so drenched with beauty that it sinks knowingly into an awed Romanticism or kitsch: it’s impossible not to think, say, of the artificial, crystal-lined grotto that Ludwig II of Bavaria built for his own delectation at Schloss Linderhof, or the hermetic and glowing interior décor commissioned by the dandy Des Esseintes in J.K. Huysmans’s novel À Rebours (1884).

We might recall too the crystallised model cathedral of Hiorns’s Before the Rain (2003) and his recollection that as a choirboy at Birmingham cathedral he had the sense of the whole building growing, with extraordinary slowness and tedium, outwards from its altar. Hiorns’s elaboration of the cathedral’s expanding unity has something of the logic of kitsch, which resides in the excessive overlaying or laminating of an object with its own aesthetic significance, as though the structure were trying too hard to impress upon us its status as art or architecture. This false unity between the material and the meaning of the object is constantly suggested by Seizure and at the same time denied.

Five minutes’ walk from Harper Road, at the centre of the north roundabout at Elephant and Castle, sits the Michael Faraday Memorial, designed by the Brutalist architect Rodney Gordon in 1959 and completed in 1961. The stainless steel box – Gordon’s original design had called for a transparent glass structure, vetoed for fear of vandalism – conceals a London Underground electrical transformer for the Northern Line. Stranded in an area soon to be extensively redeveloped, the metal facets of the memorial seem to condense the architectural energy of the area and reflect it back along newly fractured lines. The object remains enigmatic and detached from its immediate locale, however: its anonymity (and Londoners’ apparent ignorance of what it signifies) is the most famous thing about it.

Seizure is in a sense the opposite of the Michael Faraday Memorial . With Hiorns’s intervention at Harper Road, all the actual and metaphorical machinery is on the outside, the mystery (and also a certain banality) on the inside. Or at least, this is the situation that obtains when the space is sealed, the solution allowed to cool and the crystals encouraged to shudder into being and probe the darkness. Once drained and opened, the space confounds expectations that it will seem reclusive, self-involved, aesthetically detached from its surroundings. Rather, the facets, fissures and unexpected, almost vegetal, protuberances of the crystal surface appear to expose the space to its outside; the crystalline perplex becomes part of the architecture of the flat complex and its environs, causing the planes and surfaces of concrete and brick to flex and fracture and rearrange themselves into novel attitudes and estranging patterns. The secret of Seizure, if there is a secret, is out. 

This essay appears in the book Roger Hiorns: Seizure, available to buy via Cornerhouse.

Image: Copper sulphate crystals encrusting the interior of Roger Hiorns' Seizure (2008). Photograph: Marcus Leith