Writing: Signs of Life

by JJ Charlesworth

There has been work going on.

Standing on the access balcony of the small block of habitation units on Harper Road, one can look across the grass and the tarmac path towards the large habitation unit called Symington House. Symington House is a tower block, and it is under scaffold. It was completed in 1958, and now, in 2008, it is undergoing renovation. The scaffolding structure partly obscures the façade of the building, its white-painted concrete and windows obstructed by the scaffold’s spindly greyish lines and wooden decking, installed at each floor level. But a clear view of the building is hindered by the sheets of blue plastic netting hung from level to level to prevent debris falling to the ground. This blue sheeting hangs like a veil, a screen of cold colour that turns the light-welcoming windows of Symington House into dark, blank squares, dimly glinting, impenetrable.

There is no work going on now. The access decks of the scaffold are not empty, however. There are objects on these decks, but these are not the tools or equipment that would be used for the business of renovation. These are domestic objects; a child’s bicycle, a bedside chest of drawers, an ironing board, some exercise equipment. They punctuate the decks at irregular intervals, in little clusters outside one or other of the apartments in the block. They are moments of surplus activity, excesses emanating from the body of the building, currently wrapped in its lattice of grey scaffold and its skin of perforated blue plastic…

This view of Symington House can be seen from the derelict low-rise housing block, at 151-189 Harper Road, which contains Roger Hiorns’s project Seizure. This block, Symington House and the complex of council housing further north – the Lawson Estate – were built by London County Council in the 1950s and early 60s. A half-century later, while Symington House undergoes renovation, 151–189 Harper Road is scheduled for demolition. A set of spaces once designed for human habitation is now empty; built in the heyday of the Modernist movement, these spaces faintly echo Le Corbusier’s declaration that ‘a house is a machine for living in’. Yet as the Harper Road block sits abandoned, after five decades of being lived in, the echo becomes a question: what kind of life can be lived in this place?

Seizure, like many of Hiorns’s previous sculptural works, uses the chemical process of crystal formation. Hiorns has regularly used the fast-growing blue crystals that are formed in copper sulphate solution to coat the surface of an object. The objects that have been subject to this process are sometimes organic and natural – as with the desiccated thistles that adorn Discipline (2002) – or they are machine-like and industrial, as in the various motor engines of The Birth of the Architect (2003), or All-Night Chemist (2004). But another recurring object has been the architectural form of the cathedral. Model cathedrals incrusted in blue crystals appear in The Birth of the Architect and other recent works, but go back to one of Hiorns’s earliest works, Copper sulphate Chartres, Copper sulphate Notre-Dame, made in 1996.

Throughout these works, we are presented with works of human architecture and technology overgrown and overwhelmed by the growth of blue crystals. Hiorns’s use of a model of an object in his sculptures is an exception limited to the cathedrals, which offer themselves as fictions or fantasies of an idea yet to be realised; that of a real architecture overgrown and overwhelmed by the growth of these crystals. It is this idea that is now realised with Seizure. And with this shift from the scale of the model to the scale of architecture, and the shift from the imaginary to the real, the growth of blue crystals takes on a troubling new meaning, which questions the very significance of human life and human history, at a time when what it means to be human, and the direction of human society itself seems less certain than ever before.

With Seizure, Hiorns expands on a central theme of his work, that of the thing that makes itself, an object that self-produces rather than is produced by the agency of the artist. Along with the various crystallised objects, Hiorns has previously made sculptures that produce columns of fine soap bubbles, seemingly endlessly and out of nothing. In parallel to these strictly chemical or physical processes, Hiorns has also made works that suggest various forms of biological production, often turning on metaphors of sexual and asexual reproduction as well as excretion. Birth is explicit in the The Birth of the Architect, with its cathedral connected through umbilical cables to a car engine, for example. In some recent projects Hiorns has used semen to coat super-bright light bulbs and light-sources. In various steel sculptures such as L’heure bleue and Vauxhall (both 2003), perfume is sprayed on the narrow standing steel panels, at about mid-height, suggesting a pissed-on stain, and in Untitled (2006), two old window-frames, encased in perspex, are smeared with what is purported to be excrement.

What is common in all of these works is the attention to forms of human biological production, as much as non-human, physical and chemical processes. Birth, excretion, urination and ejaculation are the various physical substances which indicate those processes that contribute to the reproduction of human life. In Hiorns’s work, however, these occur in ambiguous combination with technology and architecture; while emanating from what we know to be human, these substances take on an identity partly independent of their origin. Rather than operating as indexes of human presence, they become material symbols of the process of production and reproduction, separated from the original reference point. This is perhaps why these substances take on the character of something either sacred or alchemical, but in either case something occult, whose properties go beyond the norms of raw matter.

What binds these distinct aspects of Hiorns’s work is a preoccupation with the nature of the human and the inhuman, and how we distinguish between them as the different kinds of process that matter can undergo. The form of the crystal and the process of crystallisation are exemplary in this respect – it is about as far from the human as matter can be. Entirely lifeless, based on nothing but the dynamics of inorganic chemistry, the crystal nevertheless is said to ‘grow’. It invades and coats a surface with absolute indifference, like mould, or rust. And yet, unlike either of these – organic or inorganic processes – it is not necessarily an inherently entropic process. While a mould might exploit the decay of the dead tree that it grows on, or while rust signifies the alteration of iron as it is exposed to air and water in a process of oxidisation, the process of crystallisation is one of resolution; it is what happens when the internal chemical instability of the copper sulphate solution resolves itself through the formation of the crystal. Perhaps it is also significant that the in the process of crystallisation, transformation is achieved through an internal process rather than external application. In a biological process such as the growth of a mould, the transformation of one sort of matter into another requires some external input of energy or outside substance. Similarly, with an inorganic process such as rusting, the process occurs only through a combination of external elements – the presence of oxygen and water. By contrast, crystallisation is an ordering of molecules within the crystal solution itself.

Crystallisation, then, is the purest expression of a self-contained, self-producing process of matter which goes from internal instability to stability, indifferent to materials and energies outside of it. In the iconography of Hiorns’s work, it is the clearest expression of the auto-generative theme that runs throughout. In the context of Harper Road, and of the crystallisation which has overcome an entire space of habitation, it is also the most absolute contrast to the processes of life and of living that this space bears witness to. But what does the contrast tell us about the space that the crystals have taken over?

In his 1923 book of essays Toward an Architecture, Le Corbusier writes:

You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: ‘This is beautiful.’ That is Architecture. Art enters in...

It is difficult to imagine whether the little flats on Harper Road did their residents good, or made them happy; harder still to think that art had a part to play in the creation of these austere, reduced, limited spaces; a bedroom which doubles up as a living room, a tiny bathroom and a small kitchen. Le Corbusier’s dictum that a house should be understood as ‘a machine for living in’ had, by the end of the twentieth century, become a degraded parody of itself. Where rationality and utility should have been watchwords for human progress and happiness, they instead became the justification for merely machine-like living. Harper Road, Symington House and the Lawson Estate, like countless other council housing developments across London, were built to replace London’s bombed-out and decrepit slums in the austere years of the immediate post-war. Yet while the urgency of re-housing ordinary people in decent accommodation no doubt influences the basic and limited design of much of these developments, there is nevertheless something mean-spirited and ungenerous about these little spaces, that runs counter to the early optimism of the Modernist architectural movement. No wonder that today, much of the Modernist period of urban planning and architecture is denounced for its inhuman character and dehumanising effects. The cell-like quality of bad Modernist housing projects has been much-criticised since then. If this house is a ‘machine for living in’, then the lives that could be lived in such a place must necessarily have been diminished by it.

It’s easy today to complain about the false promise of Modernism. Today these buildings stand as monuments not to an ideal of human emancipation, but rather to a dystopic view of megalomaniac town planners and the dictatorial fantasy that human beings could be remodelled by reshaping the spaces they lived in. Some of these buildings are preserved, some are demolished. But it is of little importance if some survive, because the ideal of the Modernist era – the vision of humanity expanded and enabled by the advent of the ‘machine age’ – has largely vanished. We look back to the clean lines and utopian designs of the Modernist period quizzically, as if it were out of sync with our own present; and yet, ironically, contemporary society continues to build its living spaces in similar stacks of standardised little boxes.

Our cultural attitude to the passing of the utopian ideals of twentieth-century Modernism seems to touch on Seizure only indirectly. But between the crystallised flat of 159 Harper Road, its empty neighbours and the slowly renovating, still inhabited block of Symington House, one might attempt to make a set of connections that speak of the place of human life in the structures it builds for itself, of the human energy that the act of building itself represents, of the process of time passing, and our sense of history and the present.

Looking back at Symington House under its skin of scaffold and perforated screening, one notices again the accumulation of domestic things put outside of the flats onto the temporary wooden decks. It is as if the inhabitants have expelled objects they don’t need in their immediate day-to-day, onto this handy extra bit of space that has become temporarily available. It seems unremarkable, but it is the creative, ad hoc response of people faced with not enough space for living. Confined to the rigid little boxes of their apartments, people are colonising spaces that have become temporarily available. It is a sort of growth on the building, a human activity which exceeds the building’s limitations.

While the vast Modernist house-building projects of the 1950s and 60s may be out of favour, it still marked a great reconstruction and expansion of human living-space. Today, the number of houses built each year has fallen to its lowest level since the war, and we do not build enough to replace what we have, or what would be necessary to for future growth.

But how do such realities connect to this strange environment that Hiorns has made happen, in this abandoned apartment in South London? The dense, dark cobalt blue of Seizure, its implacable and complete smothering of the straight lines of the original flat, seems to express a blank indifference to the troubles that afflict human building and human dwelling. If Seizure had continued its growth, one might imagine how the angles of the space would progressively disappear, as the crystals continued to grow inwards, towards each other. In-growing, like a crystal geode, this former space of human habitation – with its worn lino and peeling paint, with all the marks left by a living person – would be filled up, would disappear, transformed into pure crystal growth, with all signs of former human life obliterated. And with its cave-like floor, undulating with compacted crystals, Seizure suggests a return of the geological and inorganic world of pre-history. Rather than the complex and unstable relationship between human beings and their own built world, Seizure offers a lifeless form which, with its poisonous and lacerating surfaces, cannot even offer the primitive human shelter of a cave.

Auto-generative, inward-looking and in-growing, independent of human intervention and human touch, Seizure continues Hiorns’s fascination with the metaphorical potential of the inorganic, and of the strange life of inhuman processes. ‘Seizure’ might indicate the recovery of something that is rightfully owned, or a moment of paralysis or sudden arrest in the processes of a living organism. Here, in this flat that has become not a cave but a crystal geode, it is as if the living space of modern humanity is being reclaimed by the inorganic. While a more conventionally romantic ecological narrative might imagine the reclamation of human space by organic nature – ruins overgrown by plants and trees – Seizure expels even organic nature in favour of the inorganic, choosing simple molecular growth over that more complex and curious molecule, DNA.

Seizure’s perversely inhuman spectacle doesn’t present us with the scene of a modern world, derelict or abandoned, or a futuristic fantasy of the ruins of a bygone civilisation. Instead it negates this human world and its human-scaled architecture, filling interior space with hard, inert matter, reclaiming it from those who have given it up. Seizure’s paradoxical existence lies in the fact that, like any crystal geode, it has to be cut open to reveal its internal order and complexity, its hidden opulence and dazzling colour. In other words, the very act of seeing its internal form assumes a human presence; yet in this scenario, it is the human witness to the crystalised space which has become alien. No longer a derelict space of modern human habitation, Seizure positions the human spectator itself as a trespasser. Seizure’s internal order is a physical phenomenon before it is a visual one – by entering it one brings to it one’s own human sense of visual, aesthetic value as if it were an intruder. However much we think of it as an artistic spectacle, Seizure remains indifferent. All it does is grow, in darkness.

Alien and strange though it seems from the usual shape of everyday existence, Seizure nevertheless mirrors a broader anxiety in contemporary society. If the Modernist political and aesthetic visions of the twentieth century anticipated human liberation through technological and productive expansion, and the indefinite growth of human society in both quality and quantity, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that ideal of growth and expansion is profoundly undermined and called into question. In all aspects of life, the virtues of human growth and social expansion are challenged and rejected. Apparently, there are too many of us, producing too much and consuming too much, and spreading too far. Tall buildings are celebrated not for their reach and ambition, but tolerated because they keep us from spreading. In terms of the built environment, of course, such paranoia about human expansion exerts a powerful and real restraint on change and development. Inertia and entropy are characteristic of the experience of urban space in Britain. If little is built, things are equally slow to be destroyed; the block on Harper Road has been slated for demolition since 2005.

Inertia, doubt and restraint are the defining themes of contemporary Western culture, in stark contrast to the optimistic and expansive visions of the previous century. These are partly driven by the political exhaustion that followed the end of the cold war and the putative end of ‘grand narratives’. But today, we seem ever more uncertain about our right to exist on the planet, given that our explicitly modern presence appears to be the source of all the planet’s troubles. Such strongly misanthropic and alienated perspectives, which envision a world where humanity itself is the problem, are not hospitable to the expansive, human-centred optimism that underpinned the modernity of the last century. In this poisonously down-beat cultural atmosphere, it is not hard to grasp how Seizure resonates, even as it remains indifferent. Seizure’s entropic, mineral and inhospitable formation, independent of human will, echoes all our worst moments of doubt about what a world without humans would mean. The machine for living in has stopped. There are no signs of life. Art enters in.

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

Image: Revealing the interior after crystal growth, Roger Hiorns, Seizure (2008). Photograph: Nick Cobbing