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Subversion in the cathedral?

13 January 2017

Roger Hiorns’s show prompts Jonathan Evens to look back at a rare attempt to draw on the liturgical in contemporary art

photography marcin szymczak Ilona zielinska. courtesy the ikon gallery, birmingham

Evensong: Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016, by Roger Hiorns, St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham

Evensong: Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016, by Roger Hiorns, St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham

ROGER HIORNS is an avowedly secular artist who regularly includes aspects of prayer in his work. His current exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, part of a year of Birmingham-based activities for this artist born in that city, includes film of his site-specific work with Birmingham Cathedral in June 2016, when the choir lay on the cathedral floor to sing evensong.

The artist’s engagement with religion seems to have pragmatic and thematic reasons behind it. The pragmatic reason is that, at least twice, Hiorns’s studio has been located next to a church or prayer group. Enforced interaction with these has given him new ideas for his work, such as paying groups to pray for particular buildings or artworks.

The thematic reason involves installations that subvert or deconstruct symbols of authority, such as the Christian altar that has been ground down to dust and spread across the gallery floor, or the 2005 film Benign, in which a group acts against an individual, and the realisation of ignored prayer leaves its members with an empty reliance on a benign ceremony and belief.

Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016, Hiorns’s work with Birmingham Cathedral, seems to derive from this latter inspiration. It builds on Hiorns’s performance piece for the British Art Show 7, Untitled (Boy’s Choir), in which a Glasgow boys’ choir sang while lying, loosely dispersed, on the ground. Hiorns has explained this idea in terms of a move from a vertical, hierarchical position to a horizontal, democratic one, to play with the formality of the choir standing in its stalls. Laying the choir down undermines the idea of a choir.

Hiorns is fascinated by putting a wedge between various established authorities, the Church among them. This subversion he sees as symptomatic of society’s current rejection of various forms of authority. Yet when the Church, as at the cathedral, enthusiastically embraces Hiorns’s work, what is actually going on? Is the Church embracing its own subversion (and Christ might encourage that), or is Hiorns’s work rendered conformist by authority’s embrace?

Hiorns recognises that faith continues to have power and authority in many lives, and he seeks to explore and deconstruct aspects of this in his work. He does something similar in relation to the power of propulsion, symbolised by the jet engine. He has undertaken through his work a sustained assault on jet engines, adding to them brain matter and anti-depressants, having them prayed for by prayer groups, atomising them, mixing the engine with altar dust, and burying the aircraft that carried the engines. His aircraft pieces often become mementi mori for humanity: reminders of the ultimate end of us and our achievements, as in his final project for the Ikon Gallery, the burial of a Boeing 737 in Ladywood, Birmingham. Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Hiorns speaks of his work as an attempt to reveal the power of objects that are dominant in the world so as to present new forms of behaviour. “Artwork is now, most importantly, a new place where a new model of thoughts can be experienced.” The transformation of materials and chosen objects is, for him, “a process of human empowerment to re-use and re-propose the power of objects”. Among the objects re-used and re-proposed in this exhibition are aircraft engines, an altar, brain matter, choir boys, copper sulphate, film-industry mannequins, latex, photographs, plastics, and protest banners.

As with Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016, much of what is included uses a horizontal axis to provoke reflection on the nature and effect of sleep (choir boys), sex (Benign and his latex, molten, and folded-plastic paintings), and death (dust works). His often reductive vision may challenge us to question whether this is all that life offers: are we, as human beings, more than simply Falling Figures? Untitled (2014), a collection of found plastics suspended vertically from the ceiling, some of which contain a piping system that pumps air bubbles into a solution producing columns of white foam. These are reductive versions of humans, beings that simply stand and emit, again, perhaps, as a challenge to us to be more.

Hiorns argues that the artist’s responsibility today is to redesign the human optimistically. So he grows vast amounts of copper-sulphate crystals on objects — including canvases, models of cathedrals, car engines, and domestic interiors — to present new palettes of moods to viewers, or presents protest banners about, and detailed discussion of, the origins of the disease vCJD, as these reveal contamination of our food and pharmaceutical system, against which we should react.

This aspect of Hiorns’s activity may have been the point of contact for Birmingham Cathedral. The Dean, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle, who led and preached at both evensongs, said that they were pleased to be working with an artist of vision, as it enabled them to see and experience things differently and to gain new insights into ancient practices. Turning things upside down, experiencing and seeing things differently, the Dean thinks, has been the primary benefit from inviting artists into the cathedral’s life.

Yet, by setting an artist loose on worship, these services went beyond much recent engagement between the Church and artists, and raised important questions about the boundaries of future engagement, particularly if this artist-curated evensong did help those present to experience the service differently and profoundly.

In his book Art and the Church: A fractious embrace, Jonathan Koestlé-Cate explored connections between liturgy and art, noting that the liturgical factor in art for the Church had so far been given little space. The best-known example that he discussed, The White Mass by James Lee Byars, in St Peter’s, Cologne, dates from 1995. Koestlé-Cate writes in terms of events that “indicate a new world of possibility”, and are “able to reshape the contours” of their world.

Was Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016 an event in the sense that Koestlé-Cate describes, or an event to equate with The White Mass? Did it enable a different way of seeing and new insights? Judging from the few published responses available, the jury is out.

Adrian Searle wrote that the choristers “staring up into the void as they sing” was “startling, an absurd and marvellous displacement”. Laura Cumming thought that the young choristers, “singing upon the floor like renaissance effigies of the dead”, were “briefly arresting but completely preposterous”. Sian Hindle, a lecturer, found the choir parading in and then lying down on the floor “a curiously intimate” experience. This meant that their “relationship with the rules and rhetoric of the church” also shifted very physically. Claire Turner, a vicar, thought that the effect was at once disconcerting and fascinating, emphasising vulnerability and effortlessness. Hiorns, a former chorister at the cathedral, had “reshaped something of the choristers’ purpose”, so that, “as opposed to holding a space for worship, they were held by it.”

The music was generally thought beautiful. Those who were unfamiliar with the service felt that lack of familiarity, despite the cathedral’s welcome. For differing reasons, there was uncertainty about how far this was a performance or a service.

Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016, while generally well received, may not have been fully transformative in Koestlé-Cate’s terms. In the retrospective context of Hiorns’s exhibition, the service, as an edited film, seems to be performance rather than worship. Yet all these responses may be stepping stones to reclaiming our ability to give space to the liturgical factor in art for the Church.


“Roger Hiorns” is at Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, until 5 March. Phone 0121 248 0708.


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