A lot of visitors to Roger Hiorns’s critically acclaimed show at De Hallen in Haarlem reacted with a mixture of fascination and disturbance when they discovered the type of materials the artist was using for his objects. There was particular reaction to the brain matter coated on the white-matt plastic panels and cows’ brains that were attached to the coins lying on the floor.
In my review of the show I wrote, “This morbid addition to the coins reminded me of the horror stories of BSE, the mad cow disease in the UK, where millions of cattle were destroyed and the linked human disease led to the death of many people”.
When I met with the Birmingham born artist it turned out that I wasn’t carried away by my imagination as Hiorns tells me that he became interested in cows’ brains during his time as a postman in South London – the job he held for six years to enable him to become an artist.
Hiorns is not the first artist who has worked as a postman. The Dutch artist, Jan Schoonhoven, renowned for his monochrome white grid reliefs, worked his entire life at the PTT (National Postal service), producing his work at night and during the weekend.
In his postal round, Hiorns was delivering medical information to one particular address where a boy was suffering from BSE – at that time an unknowable disease. He spoke with the boy’s family and neighbours about this brutal disease that spongifies and regresses one’s brain activity.
The area to which Hiorns was delivering mail was in a lower class area of London. A depressed social housing complex filled with people under the addiction to drugs, social problems and those suffering from mental instabilities.
Hiorns chose to be a postman as he was searching for the space and ability to think. “Being a postman is a very mindless task. You’re simply sorting letters and then you’re delivering them – that’s essentially it”, he says. “I was a postman for six years so that I could be, in parallel, an artist and just get on with thinking and making work”.
Some of the work he produced as an artist is inspired or enhanced by his period of being a postman, like the brain matter pieces or his transfixing work ‘Seizure’, for which 90,000 litres of copper was pumped into an abandoned council flat creating a place of wonder in not a particularly salubrious area of London –Elephant and Castle.
Hiorns looks like he could be a member of a British pop band or could have featured in Hedi Slimane’s book, ‘Stage’, for which the former men’s wear designer of Dior photographed the rock revival and the 2.0 generation. Hiorns is wearing the type of stylish over-sized glasses for which Jarvis Cocker is renowned, combined with the hair style reminiscent of Alex Kapranos, covering his forehead. Although Hiorns was born in Birmingham he doesn’t talk with a typical Brummie accent, but with a very refined accent.
I spoke with Hiorns about the risks of using the materials he employs for his work; on being not really ‘present’ in the making of the work; why it was not an option for him to start his career as an assistant of an artist, and the uniqueness to the ‘presentness’ of an artist.
RH: Yes, it was. It has to be a calf’s brain as it has to be under a certain age and that’s simply due to BSE. You can’t have cows’ brain as they can mature the disease. Calfs’ brains are containment free and you can, usually, buy them easily at the butcher’s.
200%: So you went to the butcher’s and asked for a pound of calf’s brain?
RH: No, I was buying it from a supplier directly in order that I had a consistent source. I was also interested to see the cows in their environment prior to having their brains removed.
200%: How did you prepare the material?
RH: It was straightforward – I simply blended the brain with some water. It’s all handled in the studio with a certain amount of care. I chose the material as I wanted to propose a new material from scratch, a material that is essentially unknowable, as a material that contains the structure and the consistency of all our brains. The material consists of a very intricate and unknowable structure. At this point, it’s important to add that we don’t know the inner mechanics of how our brains are put together in as meaningful way as we’d like. We know some of the outlines, but not the full story, of how the mind moves the body, the body negotiating space, and space itself conditioning our response. Thus, it was interesting to go through the process of producing, for a purpose, a material that is essentially real, a material made of some reality.
What fascinated me was that I was essentially painting with a material of lived experience, perhaps containing some truths. As it was a calf’s brain, though, it was, after all, non linguistic. Experience of a reality, applied onto matt-white plastic panels, plain and simple, uniquely banal. The work’s simplicity, seemed paradoxically an overloaded proposition.
RH: On a day when I was least mindful of making the work. I made the work on a day when I probably had a headache, that I didn’t particularly want to be in the studio. I had 40 panels to address; I coated each of them with the prepared brain matter in one short session. Trying to reach for abstraction, simply my action as a by-product of my presence in front of these bland white panels on a January afternoon in 2012. I wasn’t looking for composition or balance. The process involved making the panels without truly looking or of any deeper thinking, then leaving the room.
200%: Did you research the risks of using brain matter extensively?
RH: Yes, I did some research before I went into making my work so that I would fully understand the hazards into which I was placing myself. In the same way that you would look into using plastics, like polyurethane, you have to be aware that you’re not killing yourself when you’re making a work.
200%: Did you wear protective gear?
RH: Yes, I wore wrist braces and a respirator. I was well kitted out, more than I needed to be. It was part of the process, part of the choreography of making the work, part of the fantasy of a studio practice in this unsure world. Studio practice; so old fashioned a term, to sit in a single place and simply produce, it’s unusual that this way of behaving should persist. I’m separated from the work, and the world by protective gear and thick gloves, separated in a way that I’m not really ‘present’ in the making of the work. I’m somehow breathing filters away from being completely ‘present’ with the work.
Perhaps the same issue occurred with my carvings into polystyrene, the works are of male couples having sexual intercourse. Made behind safety wear, so that I wasn’t poisoned by my actions. Sculpting sexual encounter in a material that is hazardous to myself.
RH: No, I don’t think it’s any more dangerouus than driving a car [laughs]. I haven’t focused too much on the possibility of death in making these works. There is risk in using these materials, of course, but you won’t feel so hindered by thoughts of injury when you are viewing the works – although I can’t speak for your experience in front of these works at all.
As I am an object maker, somebody who works with objects, I am very involved in the dominant materials and the dominant objects of the world. As such, you become interested in the make up of things as you are directly involved with them.
200%: Starting as a postman to become an artist is quite an unusual route. Didn’t you consider becoming an artist by working with other artists as an assistant?
RH: No that was just not acceptable. I couldn’t work with another artist. For your contemporaries, listen to them studiously, of course, and support the best of their new ideas, but make sure you have a path to an exit door at hand, to not become contaminated by their dogma when you’ve spent too long in their company.
I tell my students not to work with artists, not to be artists’ assistants. Whatever pre-occupations that the novice might have, new ideas they have, let’s be widely idealistic and try to keep that spirit, keep it intact. Younger artists, they will grow some new unique territory from essentially a misunderstanding of the world. This misunderstanding is important to somehow protect.
I hear artists, who reach a level when things they say gain attention, proclaim essentially a distain, a sense of the world that is based in loss – this sounds very general, of course. Essentially, steal or build on the best of their ideas, it’s important that we collectively share that possibility of progress. Otherwise cross the road when you see artists coming your way.
RH: Ideas will remain intact, ideas can be resilient, but there is an issue of artists becoming too obsessively tied to the business of running a studio as a business, as a profession. To produce without a thorough reason as to why they continue to produce, artists who simply make an uncritical agreement with the open market, a circumstance that is deeply conservative and in denial to the realities in which we are currently. A status that cannot question the nature of what it is of being an artist.
Being an artist – there are many interpretations: perhaps it’s a life spent in a close recognition of your circumstance. Or, it may be about an individual life spent within the world, to become acute to an understanding of the world, to become attuned to the poetics of the present, as covertly as they currently lie.
I’m probably sounding separatist, there is a uniqueness to the presentness of an artist. You can draw a parallel with life and you can entertain a relationship that is alongside the world. To design a new set of behaviours, to counter the conditioned foundations, we seek to move beyond. Observation and action and not simply performance and production.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
Pictures: Roger Hiorns, Seizure, 2008, a Jerwood / Artangel Commission, Harper Road, London, Courtesy Corvi-Mora, London. Roger Hiorns, Untitled, De Hallen, Photo GJ van Rooij, 2012, Coin machine Coins, brain matter, Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam. Roger Hiorns Untitled, 2011, Gesso board, brain matter 40 x 40 cm. Unique photo: Ilya Rabinovich Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam