Time and the Construction of an Uncanny Beauty

I spent last week in my studio going through old articles and photos that I had cut out of magazines during one of my frenzied cleaning sprees. It was there that I came upon a review of a 2008 exhibition, Seizure, by the British artist Roger Hiorns. It seemed like the perfect article for insight into the design principle of time (see our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook, Chapter 15).

Roger Hiorns Seizure installation of blue crystals

I quickly jotted down a few notes – art/nature/science, danger/beauty/awe, transformation, spectacle, a sense of wonder in an age of reason, time and process.

Roger Hiorns Seizure installation of blue crystals

Let’s start with process. Just what is going on in the image shown above? Working with the organization Archangel Hiorns gained access to a council flat in London that was awaiting demolition. Hiorns reinforced the outside of the apartment with steel and sealed it to make it waterproof. He then cut a small hole in the ceiling and poured in 90,000 litres of a hot solution of copper sulfate. He allowed the solution to cool over several weeks, measuring the temperature daily. He hoped that when the solution fully cooled crystals would form in the apartment, but he had no way of knowing whether his project would be a success.

Roger Hiorns Seizure installation of blue crystals detail

Roger Hiorns Seizure installation of blue crystals detail

After the liquid was drained a door was cut into the exterior and it was revealed that dazzling blue crystals had formed everywhere – on the walls, ceiling, floors, bath. There were still some pools of liquid on the floors and all the protruding crystals throughout the space lent an air of claustrophobia. Viewers were allowed to enter the piece through an adjacent empty flat, setting up a juxtaposition between the sad reality of life in a dismal, cheaply made space and the grotto-like interior of the transformed apartment. The beauty of the environment was overwhelming but there was also a sense of danger, as the sharp faceted crystals stabbed from all directions. In addition, viewers had to put on gloves and rubber boots before entering the installation, protection from the toxic copper sulfate.

Roger Horns art installation Seizure exterior view

The flat was built as social housing in the 1960s, employing a quasi-brutalist architectural style. In its derelict state it could be seen as a symbol of a failed modernist vision of architecture as an agent of positive social change. In the art installation, the building – a rational, modernist, unemotional structure – was taken over by the logic of nature, invaded and seized.

Intentionally or not, the comparison of the glittering beauty of the transformed flat to the cold, grey reality of its original use makes a social statement. When discussing the project it becomes clear that Hiorns is equally concerned with the concept of process and also intent on removing the “artist’s hand” from the making of the work. He wanted to “use a system and let the system dictate, or create what happens; it contains it’s own decisions, it’s a system that just does what it does if given the right environment.” He further states, “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… 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.

Roger Hiorns art installation Seizure exterior view Yorkshire Sculpture Park

In 2011 Seizure was relocated to the bucolic setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where it is housed in a structure designed to contain the original flat (which was moved intact to this new site). Instead of decaying city blocks there are rolling green hills. Time has made other changes to the piece. The bright blue of the crystals has dulled, the crusty floor has turned to dust and many crystals have fallen from the walls. The natural process of crystal formation transformed the room and is now completing it’s cycle.

You can read more about the project at the site for Artangel.

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