Roger Hiorns; Lucy Raven: Edge of Tomorrow – review
Source:theguardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2016-12-23 Size:
There is a strong smell of detergent in the opening room ……

‘Outright melodrama’: Roger Hiorns’s dangling male dummies at the Ikon Gallery.

There is a strong smell of detergent in the opening room of Roger Hiorns’s new show. It couldn’t be less appropriate, or so it first seems. For the immediate spectacle is a grim gathering of anthropomorphic bodies, old and decaying, dangling by tubes from the ceiling. Carburettors, silicone jerry cans, plastic drains and rusty engine parts, each has some semblance of a head and spine. They look like invalids on drips, like gas masks attached to collapsing bodies, or disease-engorged organs. They look like death itself.

Or perhaps like near-death, for a constant spume of detergent froths from every hinge and crevice, slowly burgeoning and then pooling on the floor, like spittle or some nameless body fluid. And this detergent emits a pungent hospital smell. The mechanical world is slowly dying, despite the hygiene. Even the hospital equipment is on the way out: an x-ray machine lies defunct on the floor.

‘Like invalids on drips’: Untitled, 2014 by Roger Hiorns at the Ikon Gallery.

Playing in the air is an episode of Radio 4’s Inside the Ethics Committee, concerning a terminally ill patient named Mr Khan, who has been in intensive care for months. His family want to keep him alive. But is a body sustained entirely by machines any longer a life? That’s the radio debate. So now the conflation of machines with human beings becomes more sharply pertinent, and the froth appears innocent, ephemeral, perhaps even tragic.

Brain matter (whose? how?) is mixed into several works – you can’t see it, you only know it is there

Roger Hiorns, born in Birmingham in 1975, is best known for a single work: Seizure, in which he spread 75,000 litres of copper sulphate through a condemned London council flat to create a twinkling blue grotto that would gradually fade to dead crystals. (Shortlisted for the 2009 Turner prize, it has since been revived at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.) The Ikon Gallery has a panel of the stuff, for anyone who missed it – a bluer than cobalt blue glittering almost to blindness.

Seizure was exquisite and toxic, spectacular but short-lived; and this is the Hiorns matrix. Everything beautiful will die. Particularly if good men stand by and do nothing. One theme of this Ikon show is the brutality of diseases, specifically vCJD, otherwise trivialised as “mad cow disease”. Scientists talk about it on film. Brain matter (whose? how?) is mixed into several works – you can’t see it, you only know it is there, along with other rogue materials including antidepressants, because the captions tell you. A devastating poster issued during the outbreak appeals for justice for the victims. This irresistibly brings to mind the fatal flippancy of the then agriculture minister John Gummer feeding his daughter a beefburger in 1990 to “prove” there was no threat.

A yet more startling item in Hiorns’s list of materials is “Youth”, by which he means the succession of young male life models who appear nude, at certain times, throughout his show. One sits astride a military jet engine: warm flesh, cold death being the obvious conceit. Another reclines on a carpet of dust, which turns out to be the ground granite of a church altar (where would Hiorns be without those captions?)

One of the life models employed to sit on a jet engine in Roger Hiorns’s show at the Ikon Gallery.

And while we’re thinking of churches – or not, if you missed that caption – a film in the next gallery shows choral evensong at Birmingham Cathedral very simply adjusted so that the young are once again fallen. Young choristers lie singing upon the floor like renaissance effigies of the dead – indeed they are performing William Byrd. It is briefly arresting but completely preposterous.

So everything speaks to something else in this show; everything leaks or interconnects. It is one way to muster a momentum otherwise lacking. Hiorns talks about the importance of moods and behaviours, of bringing the viewer directly into his art, of insulting the objects of domination (jet engines: pure JG Ballard). But his talk is oblique, his work peculiarly variable.

Two lifesize male dummies, for instance, dangle from magnets on a wall. At certain moments, these figures are released to drop abruptly to the ground. This is outright melodrama, liable to induce nervous laughter. But one dummy is stuffed with a copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (or so we’re told), as if that dragged this circus into art.

Raven is screening a constant barrage of TV test cards to make your eyes bleed

Hiorns says that he wants to get away from the formal aspects of art (colour, composition, style, and so on). He is currently working on the burial of a Boeing 737 beneath Birmingham that people will be able to visit, as if the idea of crashing to your death was not live enough. Yet the best of his work – Seizure, for instance – gathers its strength mainly through formal qualities.

At the Ikon, he is also showing a series of paintings that appear to have been created in some kind of body fluid, flesh-coloured youths caught in a dance of death on large black canvases. Yet they are also making love, writhing and twisting and kissing with a balletic grace. These fleurs du mal are an antidote to the densely factual strain in Hiorns’s work. And nothing in the show takes the mind closer to the relationship between man, machine and mortality than the desert of dust spreading across the gallery floor, rising and falling in miniature peaks. It is formed from the atomised particles of a passenger plane, and it irresistibly proposes those mountain tops and barren landscapes where passengers fall to earth, a remote graveyard of the lost.

RP31, 2012 by Lucy Raven at the Serpentine.

Plenty of ideas, not enough art: that stands for Lucy Raven’s Serpentine Gallery show as well. Raven, born in Arizona in 1977, but now based in New York, works mostly with animation and optics; her movies have been shown all over the world. These animations are often composed of photographs in stop-start sequence – a stuttering, percussive performance at the Calder Foundation; photographs of offices; stills from television programmes.

These are as boring as Raven wants them to be. She is even screening a constant barrage of TV test cards to make your eyes bleed (although the window blackouts have the unintended consequence of making Kensington Gardens look day-for-night). The main gallery has been turned into a cinema, in which visitors put on red and green anaglyph glasses to watch stereoscopic photographs appear momentarily 3D: a phenomenon shown to children in museums the world over. The most interesting work here is the ballet of light beams gliding and falling, parting and uniting as they sweep the walls and floor. After that, it is nothing but diminishing returns.

Star ratings (out of five)

Roger Hiorns ★★★

Lucy Raven ★

• Roger Hiorns is at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 5 March. Lucy Raven: Edge of Tomorrow is at Serpentine Gallery, London until 12 Februar

[Editor] 张艳