In a recess in the basement of Berlin’s exhibition and event venue Kraftwerk, three limp figures hang spotlit against the concrete walls. In place of biological organs, their limbs and torsos are stuffed full of pages from Martin Heidegger’s existential philosophy, Being and Time (1927). On the floors above, hundreds of experimental-music fanatics drift, chain-smoking, dressed only in black, absorbing the thundering bass vibrations. For four nights a year, the former East German power station is occupied by Atonal festival, a programme of sonic and visual art. The hanging figures are a work by Roger Hiorns – the artist known for burying aircraft, investigating vCJD (Mad Cow Disease) and exhibiting listless naked young men atop piles of dust pulverized from a stone altar.
Sean Burns met with Hiorns in London to discuss his Atonal installation, The retrospective view of the pathway (2009–2019), and the politics of making work for public institutions.
Sean Burns What was it like working with Atonal?
Roger Hiorns I was trying to understand [visual programmer] Adriano Rosselli’s voice through his choices. I am interested in ambiguity and, in reality, this new work somewhat lacked that in its directness. As soon as Adriano received the piece, he started playing with it in ways I hadn’t anticipated, in ways that queried my usually direct instructions. It’s a simple work: its needs are simply to be introduced to a situation.
SB Yes, there was a certain amount of theatricality in the display.
RH I’m intimately involved with making, of course – obsessively so. Then comes the time for the institution to run with the work. I am not a stylist. I can invest a certain amount of time in ideas of display, but it’s not the highest priority, so I really welcomed the veil of theatricality imposed on the piece. I didn’t recognize the motives behind it and this opened up something, which I appreciated.
SB I suppose artworks do assume a degree of autonomy when they leave the studio?
RH Absolutely! The work becomes part of the world, through the membrane, crossing the threshold. I often completely miss the full experience of my work after it leaves the studio.
SB Is that a deliberate decision?
RH I think so. It’s perhaps something to do with the energy of making, of being invested solely in creating and nothing beyond. The operation of the work in the world is designed to be complicated, not fully disclosed. The work is an action towards a delimitation of worldly experience and, after the studio phase, it is useful to …
RH Interfere or influence. Yes, the desired – or undesired – outcome does not necessarily come from design or neglect, especially given the deep power rituals that humans conduct with objects. I remember the first time I presented my series ‘Youth’ (1999-ongoing) – featuring naked young men often posing on military machinery – in a UK institution (‘British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet’, Nottingham Contemporary, 2010), there was a great deal of soul-searching, intricate layers of reticence, licenses chased, the ambiguous protection of a small audience.
SB Which, of course, makes you want to do it more ...
RH Absolutely. I rarely attend openings but, when I saw images of the work published in the Guardian, I noticed the youth was wearing underwear.
SB People in the art world can be quite cautious.
RH Yes, it was a curious moment. I’d started making works like this some 10 years earlier. Back then, there was very little interest. People thought I was a pervert, showing photographs of myself naked on a suspended engine. Not until much later did anything start to happen, when I met a generation of curators who shared my age, experiences and ideas of social progress.
SB Where are we at now? What tendencies do you see occurring in art?
RH It’s important to self-reflect and to hold onto a sense of interiority – not to endlessly propose an idea of the exterior self. Outside the artificial surfaces of the present, as an autonomous artist, you are quietly making art objects, or thinking about objects that might be a truthful continuation of your unique inner experience. I think there is now a duality of importance: to not only provide the artwork but to offer a pathway towards a unique understanding.
SB Are these considerations you have in mind during the creative process?
RH The act of making is internalized. Being present within the arena of making, there are many things going on at the same time: physically, mentally, socially. This is why art-making is so mysteriously complex. There are all these rather opposing states of being that I’m trying to activate when I make art. So, rather than exhaust a single channel of experience – as do artists who are, perhaps, in thrall to their own market – I differ in that I want to liberate a full life.
SB Recently, you’ve returned to painting …
RH Yes, I’ve picked up on a thread of two-dimensional work I started around 2008. First, there was an image series, ‘Digestive System’ (1999–ongoing), which led me to make the paintings with brain matter, ‘Untitled’ (2011). From there, I moved on to an initial group of paintings ‘Untitled’ (Sex Paintings, 2016-onwards) depicting male sexual intercourse in a direct iconography. Now, I’ve spent the summer creating a second group of sex paintings.
SB You’ve said that you find painting difficult.
RH My motivation for painting is still as tough as it ever was. There are flows and balances within painting that require all of your thinking. There’s a selfishness to the act that I find difficult to surmount, although I understand its primacy. You have to have something to offer: painting brutally reveals the laziness of any artist who operates simply on automatic, or the wilful cynic. There are only a handful of paintings in every decade of any importance.
SB What’s the significance of Heidegger’s Being and Time in your work for Atonal?
RH Around 2009, I was reasonably isolated on a residency in Saché, France, at the sculptor Alexander Calder’s house and studio. In this arch modernist’s house, I became fascinated by a number of books, but two in particular were key: Eric Rhodes’s Psychotic Metaphysics (1994) and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Both works are famously complicated. Rhodes’s book is the exploration of the mind’s journey into psychosis and depression, explored through obscurantist mythologies. Heidegger’s has a circularity and a movement in its reading, transitioning from clarity to a complete burial of sense. I read parts of this book at the same as time listening to UC Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus’s Philosophy 185 Heidegger lectures – his focus on the philosophy of AI and themes around the embodied mind and the computational mind.
SB Do you look at a lot of people’s work?
RH Yes, I take a great pleasure in looking at art. I’m obsessive about it. It was a journey that started very early in my life. I think it’s the same for anyone who has a passion for visual culture, but also for the deeper complications of imagery and for what those complications can represent. A new field of interpretation is always sought, beyond the exhaustion of the present version. I feel certain artists, perhaps a generation older than me, are, on the whole, deceitful – actors of bad faith, cynically exploitative of present dangers, tokenistic and complacent.
SB How do you see your role as an artist?
RH What’s my role? That’s not an easy question to answer. I was thinking the other day: is my role to be a chronicler of 40 years of neoliberalism? What is the deeper critique of this persistently damaging subject? A slippery substance of false reality, false consciousness, Neoliberalism's key purpose is to sustain a status quo through systemic violence, encouraging the population en masse to indulge in a delusive fantasy. I feel we are waking up to this now. So, with this in mind, there is fascinating work to be made in proposing what the many alternatives could be, in moving us on from the delusion.
Main image: Roger Hiorns, The retrospective view of the pathway, 2009-19, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Atonal, Berlin; photograph: © Helge Mundt