Writing: The Impregnation of an Object

Roger Hiorns in conversation with James Lingwood, July 2008

James Lingwood: You use a wide range of different materials. What determines the choice of material in your work?

Roger Hiorns: The way that I approach making certain artworks is to have some kind of psychological position, a place that is grown from a certain ambiguity. You always have to think about materials in terms of being real things – you have to cut them off from what their real use is, to interfere in their world-ness. You have to start from this material basis, and understand yourself through the material – it gives you a means of detachment.

But the materials you use are quite specific and seem to be precisely chosen – fire, detergent foam, copper sulphate crystallisation. Is there anything they have in common?

The key issue is whether it’s possible to choose a material which helps in creating an isolation – an isolated object. They were all carefully chosen, through a kind of evolution, through spending time with the material.

I’m not somebody who’s interested in a deliberate form or design or style. These materials – fire or foam or crystal growth – have their own autonomy and their own aesthetic, which simply takes me out of the equation.

Were there materials which didn’t do what you wanted them to do?

I don’t think I ever chose a material just to ask it do something, or to coerce something out of it. I have quite an illustrative way of working, a very good idea of what something is going to be before it’s finished. I tend to think out the problems beforehand, it’s part of the practice, part of the internal psychological perspective on how to make artworks. I rarely use drawings or other aids, the work is an extension of my way of thinking – working things out in my head, and then working it out as a reality. This becomes a useful way of selecting materials.

You relinquish control because the materials have their own life, but you have a good idea of what will happen.

There’s a set of positions or desires that you want the work to fit within, or to have a certain relation to. But these aren’t rules or set pieces written down on a piece of paper, it’s basically a judgement about how something will be over a certain time, there’s an emotional evolution in the way that they work. These act like filters, internal mental filters, which you pass all of your thoughts through.

There’s quite a strong structure underpinning the work?

It’s a kind of aesthetic procedure; everything gets channelled through a certain way of working. In a way there’s a ridiculous amount of structure, but it’s an internal structure, an ongoing internal monologue. The desire, fundamentally, is not to be stricken with meaning, not to ascribe meaning to everything you do … an outside stimulus will always magnetise the structure through certain different positions.

How did you arrive at the idea of working with crystallisation?

It’s a bit like a childhood memory, I can see parts of it more than the whole. A while ago, maybe 10 years, I needed a material to achieve a certain kind of detached activity, and on a basic level an act of transformation, a material which was going to simply transform another material. I felt a system of nature like crystallisation would do.

What kind of control did you want over this transformation?

I was very interested in the idea that the artwork would exist aesthetically without my hand, and in not being present for most of the making. I would put together some kind of basic structure which would then grow into something else, the unanticipated other.

So working with crystallisation seemed to solve the problem of style, of the position of style being a static moment. Once people accept it, then it tends to stay with you rather than with anyone else, it builds a cave around you.

The object is made by the reaction that happens over time, these materials are introduced to each other, that was interesting to me, instead of processes like welding, sawing and, importantly, hammering … I like the idea of sculpture as slow object-making.

A slow process gives you the chance to stand back?

I am completely objective about my own artwork, I can stand outside of it, against the world, and work out whether it should exist or not. That’s why I use materials which enable me to become detached, materials which are their own thing, have their own genetic structure. Rather like copper sulphate is described as autogenetic, my work is also autogenetic, it tries to make some sense of my psychological position.

What led you to the specific material of copper sulphate crystal – was it the blue colour, or the size of crystal that can be grown?

I had an object that I wanted to deal with in a particular kind of way. I was thinking about cathedrals at the time, the structure of cathedrals, and of a material that could have some kind of structural relationship to cathedrals.

I spent a lot of time in a cathedral when I was younger, as a choirboy in Birmingham. Subjected to the awful monotony. Anyway you become embroiled in the architecture, and its central-ness, the focus of attention on the altar. You consider the cathedral is grown from the centre outwards, from an altar outwards, which seems to me how you have a relationship with religion, that you have a central point of focus, that everything relates to. I have to add that central-ness is a Birmingham obsession, in its geographical position, its whole identity based on the centre, the Birmingham cathedral altar seemed as ground-zero to this consideration.

The crystal has a similar form of activity. It starts from the scale level of the molecule, it has its specific set form, from which it cannot move or deviate, unless of course there is impurity introduced. In the environment of the saturate the crystal grows forever outwards.

It reproduces itself, it has its own system.

It’s a different kind of control.

Were you making something which you hoped could overcome a kind of totalising world view through its own systems and structures? What’s your relationship to religion now?

I see religion as something we have to grow out of, it’s just holding us back from the next stage of a mental evolution, and in some cases a scientific evolution.

My desire is to find an aesthetic which would eventually find its way towards a different way of thinking. There’s no way of assuming that a way of thinking might exist for the work right now, in the present, so perhaps the works are made for an interpretation that is yet to exist, maybe twenty years in the future, or a hundred years perhaps – but it doesn’t exist now…

I need to find a way of taking a number of things, which are prevalent in culture and try to push them aside. And I try to do it materially. At the moment I am working with objects which I try to affect through the introduction of other objects. Brain matter on engine parts, on industrial filters. These materials are cultural and specific objects, their nature and being are understood in this present period. It’s my concern to develop these objects further into the next phase, to de-nature and de-identify them. Through practiced ‘aggressions’ and misuse. My aesthetic, if it can be called an aesthetic, is a mis-use of common properties.

When you’re pushing aside an object, do you want to push aside what they represent? The host object is as important as the material introduced to it, the engine head of a powerful car.

Yes, actually I try to be deliberate and heavy-handed when it comes to the metaphorical side of things. When it comes to crystallising a BMW engine for example, it was the closest I could get to the implausible idea of crystallising a pure expression of power. And then it fails, because as soon as you crystallise something which is so perfect, as the BMW engine is so aggressively perfect, it becomes obsolete.

As JJ Charlesworth has suggested the new object becomes somehow sacred?

If you focus attention on any object for a good period of time, then it becomes THE object rather than just any object. That is the main paradox of sculpture somehow. One of my persistent problems is that I have a problem with making objects full stop. I suppose it’s a privileged point somehow, because I can be completely objective about whether something should exist or not. That’s the advantage of working with materials which are autogenetic. My work is also autogenetic, it tries to make sense of my psychological and world position, and then it’s made.


Yes, it’s useful, simply because I don’t have a style…

…but the choice of materials can become a style, because these materials can only perform in certain ways, can only achieve certain kinds of form.

Once it becomes too familiar, it is time to move on.

You don’t want a personal association with a material like Beuys with fat or felt, or Matthew Barney with vaseline?

They can become a crutch, you have to move away for your own sanity. In truth, the process is an investigation, a constant investigation not a position.

So there’s no personal mythology, ostensibly

Ostensibly no, the materials when I start to work with them hold a certain chaos, then you gradually become completely aware of their potential, their properties, and then it doesn’t become important any more.

But sometimes a material just seems right?

If you do stay with a material for a long time, then maybe other meanings will come along, especially as the material get pushed into the real world. Maybe with Seizure, we are taking it to such a degree that the desire to investigate further what copper sulphate crystallising can do will be over, it will be obsolete …

Were their other kinds of crystal forms which have been possible, or is there something specific about copper sulphate?

There are other possibilities, and I got into trouble finding out about them. I scared myself when I first started to look into crystallisation. Copper sulphate is readily available, but there are also other chemicals too which you can get hold of. I tried another material, potassium dichromate, a bright orange material, which turned out to be really quite poisonous. I was living in a flat in New Cross at the time, and the day that it arrived, I unwrapped it, and thought great colour, and played with it, and tried to make some crystals… and then I read the leaflet, which you’re supposed to read first, and it turned out that it was incredibly carcinogenic, great work!

What about its blueness – was that something else which attracted you to the material?

The colour was always a sidetrack for me, it was never about the beauty, about claiming something to be a beautiful object after it had undergone the crystallising process. That would just be banal, though banality is not a bad thing always, but it’s meaningless in the wrong way.

Blue has such a particular history, think of the early Renaissance. There’s a fascinating book by Paul Hills about painting in early Renaissance Italy, where painters would agree with their patrons as to how much gold and lapis lazuli they should use. It was the colour of the heavens …

It was the colour of the Virgin Mary’s robes too.

What about Yves Klein and International Klein Blue?

When you’re starting out as an artist, I think you have to be pigheaded about your position, maybe even revisionist, you have to claim the world for yourself, and then you try to work backwards and filter out what you don’t need and take what’s good for you.

There’s no tiptoeing around?

No, and misinterpretation can be really useful too. You just take what you want. I was never really a big fan of Yves Klein, because I think I saw quite a lot of the weaker work first, the objects, and it didn’t connect with me.

He also used fire as a material – or at least the residues of fire.

Yes that’s true, I was interested in those works, they were architecturally aggressive. For me, a good way of starting is always with some kind of internal aggression. You have to have an impetus, to take something and do something with it. To change things is aggressive.

Aggressive against authority, against what these objects exemplify? There’s an attitude to authority here.

Maybe the process of claiming them is aggressive but I never thought of the objects themselves as aggressive in their finality, just their processing perhaps. Perhaps there’s a mimicking of authority, of authoritarian language, this comes out more in my writings. There’s an interest in coercion, there has to be if you’re interested in transforming the object.

There’s no destruction of the father going on here?

No, my father did a pretty good job at doing that to himself. He spent a lot of time in hospitals when I was in my teens….

I was in a very ambivalent place when I was growing up, my father had a self-destructive illness, so all of the attention went there. So you watched it, and you don’t really understand the problems. I was in a kind of no place, because I didn’t know where the authority was. Maybe that’s quite useful, perhaps I desire that ambiguity of authority, the lack of place. But the work is not autobiography, I’m very opposed to that.

Can we talk about the genesis of Seizure?

I was just checking in my sketchbooks for 2006. The first thing I wrote in the new year (perhaps childishly) was ‘transgressive and vulgar’. I knew that something was coming along, and I drafted an initial statement on a piece of paper. If the work takes off – in the imagination with just a few lines, then that is usually enough. It is like a magnification of the psychological state I was in at the time. It’s an extreme possibility.

What kind of psychological state?

It is a building of compulsion on compulsion, an enactment of a thought which came at a bad time. So there’ s a pathology about that – that a thought coming out of a state of depression can end up as a massive problem, a difficult work … I always think of this piece as a deeply internalised project, a forever growing inwards, an unrelenting, unknowing chemical activity going deeper inwards. It is built around a piece of architecture which has a similar sensibility somehow.

What led you to the kind of architecture? The space we found is quite specific and there is the idea of working in a small part of a larger whole, where the living spaces were replicated, all the same size with the same configurations.

I have a deep interest in Brutalist architecture and the best example of that is the Robin Hood Estate designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in Poplar, East London. That was the place I was initially thinking about.

What was it about the Robin Hood Estate?

These buildings were about containing large groups of people who were all living in the same kinds of places and being encouraged to think the same kinds of thoughts. There was the idea of a collective, the dream of growing together for the better good, and I have always been very distrustful of collective identity, like my attitude to religion perhaps. These kinds of building don’t work; as a model they have not passed the test of time. Great symbols of collective will, which were treading on an individualistic attitude in the form of small, pokey flats. They give you very little architecture, the nominal amount of expression you’re allowed to have, they were ungenerous in that respect.

In the great social experiment these buildings inferred, they provided no room for movement, zero mobility to move further, they are completely static materially and emotionally.

These kinds of buildings began to deteriorate quite quickly.

They’re still somehow rather beautiful, they seem to carry the stain of life, to take in everything they were experiencing. I am always interested in considering a new material … this material called ‘experience’ and what would that be. The grinding up of a jet engine is experience. The use of brain matter on industrial filters is experience. The collective nature of the place is a kind of experience, an amalgam of memories. The building is already made of experience, both in stain, sweat, and social investment.

What are you doing with this ‘experience’?

Crystallising the interior of one of the flats is an odd thing to do of course, it’s negating a space which contained an experience which we have no idea about, no access to. These buildings suggest a life that is spent, they are at the end of something.

How does this relate to the car pieces? Are they at the end of something too?

Well yes and no. Partly yes, because without getting too much into Ballard, they are taken from car crashes.

Why was that important?

Because they were much cheaper, the engines were salvaged from wrecks. They were completely fucked-up once useful things. The problem with the people who had these BMWs was that they didn’t know how much power they had and couldn’t control them.

You mentioned Ballard, is there an affinity to his writing? One way of looking at your sculptures might be as if they are objects from a future moment in Western culture, that they involve a projection in time as many of Ballard’s novels do.

I did read The Crystal World, but actually some time after I’d started working with crystals. I like the fact that the language is straightforward, there’s no mystery. The aspect of Ballard that I really like is that he found the gaps, the places that no-one else was particularly interested in, out-of-town shopping malls, motorway underpasses, high-rise buildings, it’s a sort of psycho-scape that I have an affinity for, and which I know well from growing up in Birmingham. In London I live in a concrete heaven. The choice of Harper Road has to do with this aesthetic.

Does the crystal overwhelming the object, in this case a bedsit, involve some kind of temporal projection?

I guess there’s a certain familiarity with the feeling you get in science fiction. To be sure, the crystallisation is very real, its process is not a simulation or a representational effect. It’s experience is an immediate one, though one tempered by the fact that this process is unending, the crystal will grow universally without limit if the environment is maintained, it’s the public that corrupts that possibility. The event in terms of the temporal is instantaneous …

A crystal experience – for example in a cave or a grotto – would normally be related to something which has grown over a long period of time.

Something pre-human, something beyond our experience, that’s very interesting and useful. This project is of course a synthetic environment; we’re forcing the material and a mass of chemicals to do what it does, to create an environment for us. Instantaneous and without history.

Why is it so important that this material performs according to its own logic?

Because I disappear. These objects become autonomous; they are not mine any longer.

There’s a paradox, because at the same time you relinquish control and disappear, you also reappear because of your association with this way of working, with the process, with the material …

Exactly, that’s when it’s time to move on. We have to be very careful about the way the world works right now, the production aesthetic, which then generates the desire for more production. I’m considering the artist as a possibility for dematerialisation and I don’t think an artist should support the status quo, or contrive a consensus with their surroundings, that’s important, this is an attempt to move on perhaps.

Would you have liked the crystal growth to have overwhelmed the architecture rather than being contained within it?

RH: When we first talked about the project, there was the idea of submerging a building in its entirety, which was in reality completely ridiculous and maybe too much of an exterior operation, but it’s still ridiculous on this scale, the scientists we’ve been talking to have been taken aback by the scale of the work. The desire to capture the building, to impregnate it… introducing this strangeness into a functional utilitarian space.

JL: You like the idea of seeding and pouring.

Maybe there’s a psycho-sexual element, in the early days I talked about introducing a liquid in the building, and the host, theenvironment is seeded, and then the crystal grows out. It’s an aggressive process. Maybe it’s not so much sexual but to do with the idea of agency, impregnation and growth. It involves the birthing of an object … though I hate the idea of an artist thinking about their objects as babies, it’s so self-regarding. I want to push that away. What we are offering is an unusual object in the nature of objects. The negative void into which the liquid is being poured will gradually be reduced … I consider that a rather beautiful minimal sculpture in itself, this brooding chemical mass within a building. The work as a void-filler, it replicates itself unendingly.

The exterior not being crystallised is now important, because it doesn’t disclose the interior activity?

It would have involved too much composition, but there will be some natural residues, some very real stains.

So the evidence of the pour isn’t important to you. It’s not like Jackson Pollock, or Robert Smithson’s Glue Pour or Asphalt Rundown, which were in a way mimicking geological events, where the action itself, the evidence of the action, was very important.

For me, the pouring is a means to get the liquid in, to violate the place. To violate the building’s identity.

There’s a potential failure here, because you can’t gauge how the crystals are growing.

We can only do it once. We’re doing it to see what the environment will end up like, it’s a new form of production, a different way of making, putting these elements together and seeing what happens. That’s not a disclaimer if we end up with a flat full of silt, but the environment is a huge amplification of the way that I’ve worked up to now. It’s not about the lack of control. Having more control, that somehow is the big fear of the work, the big fear of all of the work.

Image: (above) Copper sulphate crystal detail, Roger Hiorn, Seizure (2008). Photograph: Marcus Leith