updated: Roger Hiorns, Hepworth Gallery, ***** young men, machines, alchemy

lifeclass 1900

some words have been replaced by ****’s to avoid people being disappointed by my website not offering what some people expect to find!

Charlotte Higgins article about the new work by Roger Hiorns, that opened yesterday at the Hepworth Gallery is entitled ‘Artist Roger Hiorns fills Wakefield warehouse with ***** young men’.

How misleading and sensationalist that description now seems, having had the most wonderful, evocative encounter with the work. The warehouse is certainly not filled with ***** young men. It is far from full of anything, the careful spacing between the objects within the space providing a strange theatrical stage that has a seemingly divine light streaming in, creating halos around the classical tableau of life-class poses. Hardly a sound in the room, an homage to traditional art education that is apparently no longer affordable in our art colleges.

Consider the images we have seen of formal art classes (image above)
I chose this image because, as you see, the models were not even real bodies, but classical examples of the idealised human form. They are presented on plinths, often stone or wood, a juxtaposition of culture (the stonecarving) and natural materials. With that in mind, consider what Hiorns is showing us.

The large industrial room has an array of man made, industrial objects placed around it, fairly equally spaced and arranged. There is a symmetry

The light streaming through the windows provides a gravitas, a wondrous lightshow that falls upon the objects and the performers

The objects are variable, some aircraft engine parts, a stainleess steel kitchen worktop (or is it from a morgue? A surgical worktable?)

Regimental rows of white plastic buckets with lids, half filled with an unknown substance, partially wrapped in polythene, stacked in an ordered manner. Resting on wooden pallets (plinth)

A typical metal street bench, on which is a small circle of ‘stuff’ – grey powder, dust, ash

A coffee table (plinth) with live BBC news footage showing on it’s flat-screen surface.

A naked young man posed on the coffee table, relaxed, still, calm, quiet, contemplative

Another man sits on an engine part, also still, posed, comfortable with this metal hulk of engineering (I did notice a tiny piece of foam rubber which must have helped to create this illusion)

Naked flesh against flatscreen TV, and against weighty industry, the ghosts of industry, redundant artefacts.

Compare with the life class of 1900. What part of Hiorns work represents culture? What is nature? What is worthy of being in a museum? Why are there no art students in here drawing? Why, as someone who attended art college, do I ‘know how to behave’ as I view the work? As the audience, I look wth respect, I would not dream of touching these passive, vulnerable men as they gaze into nowhere, or bow their heads in submission to the visitors gaze. There is a strange sadness, the redundance of the machine parts, the passing of the industrial age. I wonder how the work might be if the models were young women. How might that feel? How powerful is the visitor gaze?

Then there is the stuff. I begin to see the stuff on some of the objects and feel driven to ask the steward what it is. She explains it is from the flame. Some of it is ceremoniously swept away and replaced, and lit. A tender, gentle flame of chemical source flickers into existence close to one of the models sitting on an engine part. It is absolutely magical. The only moving living thing in this calm. It is alchemical – it reminds us that stuff is life and life is stuff, of the moment, illumination. It dances in the sunlight. I loved it.

Occasionally the models silently move from one place to another. No eye contact, just a sense of purpose to carry out their training.

At the end of the performance they quietly pick up their folded clothes from the windowsill and begin to dress. We leave, it would seem inappropriate to watch them dress, dressing is a private act. Life models have screens or dressing rooms, the act of dressing transforms the models from objects to subjects, at which point our voyeurism is acknowledged. We become aware of how we have visually consumed something which we are not usually allowed access to, and it is unsettling.

I have always wanted to see Seizure by Hiorns (commissioned by Artangel). On my way homewards today I’m going to see it at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Exciting! Especially after seeing this offer from his Youth series.

I’ve always enjoyed alchemy. Sadly, like life drawing and dark-room photography, artists today are begin sensually deprived of these things. It’s important we never forget that when people and stuff comes together, magic can happen.

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