Close by the River Orwell in Suffolk – from which the author of 1984 (1949), George Orwell, borrowed his nom de plume – there is a chalky patch of farmland. Inaccessible to the public, it is not used to grow crops or to graze livestock, but has instead been turned over to meadow, in order to attract and sustain a population of bees. Twanging among the wildflowers, these endangered insects remain unaware of what lies buried some nine metres beneath their flightpaths: a decommissioned Hawker Siddeley Dominie T1 military plane, interred by Roger Hiorns in 2016. The first in a network of submerged aircraft collectively titled A Retrospective View of the Pathway (to date, the artist has buried two others: in Prague and in the Dutch town of Haarlem), the Hawker was originally used for surveillance. Now, its windows nudged by moles and worms, its sensory apparatus struck blind, the plane has been removed from the realm of visible things and transformed, perhaps paradoxically, into a work of art.
Burying a military plane begins with an elemental inversion: the medium of air is exchanged for the medium of earth. From this, further inversions follow: a moving object is stilled, an aggressive object is pacified, a unilateral object stops taking sides. If there’s a faint echo, here, of the Biblical injunction to beat ‘swords into ploughshares’, then we should note that Hiorns made no physical changes to his Suffolk aircraft. An objet trouvé (or, given its subtraction from the sensible world, more accurately an objet perdu), it nevertheless retains its status as a tool, albeit one that’s been rendered militarily impotent, and is now available, to the mind if not the hand or eye, for a new and ambiguous use.
Burial is inescapably associated with dead bodies, but if Hiorns’s plane is a corpse, it is not of the ordinary sort. A great cruciform hunk of steel, it will never rot, never merge into the pale, surrounding soil – indeed, if the Christian rapture is more than magical thinking, and if it extends (why not?) to aircraft, the Hawker will one day rise from the grave, its wings muddied but intact. Noting that this corner of Suffolk is farmland, not a cemetery, we might prefer to think of the plane not as something that’s been inhumed, but sown. And yet, I struggle to picture it as a seed bursting greenly up towards the light of day. Rather, its submerged cabin calls to mind bank vaults, panic rooms and presidential bunkers: dim, sterile places designed to protect the established order against the raging of a storm. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that it’s sealed off from the vulnerable surface world.
Taken as a whole, A Retrospective View of the Pathway is a subterranean infrastructure project, like sewage pipes or fibre-optic cabling: we might ask ourselves what toxins it spirits away, what information it transmits. To me, it seems that Hiorns’s work is concerned not only with placing something in the ground but with the dwindling resources we extract from it. Oil is a military plane’s fuel, its blood. Control of this substance is the reason so many of these death machines patrol our common sky.
As both archaeologists and psychotherapists know, few things stay buried forever, and part of what makes thinking about Hiorns’s aircraft so compelling is imagining it being disinterred by whoever inherits this wounded Earth. Considered today, it’s that rare thing: an artwork that is both eschatological and filled with a kind of grey hope. Really, though, as the title A Retrospective View of the Pathway suggests, it is addressed not to the present, but to the future. What our descendants will make of this object depends on what survives of us.
First published in Issue 200