Untitled 2006 consists of a BMW car engine covered in bright blue copper sulphate crystals, held aloft on top of two steel poles that rise vertically from a three-sided steel pedestal. Between two steel shelves within the pedestal lies a smaller, detached segment of the engine, which is also covered in blue crystals. Hiorns created the crystals by placing the engine parts inside a tank filled with copper sulphate solution to initiate a chemical reaction that produced the brilliant blue surface accretion. Over time the colour will lose its saturation as the crystals dehydrate.
Copper sulphate crystals are a recurring motif in Hiorns’s sculpture. Fascinated by the unpredictable and uncontrollable growth patterns of this inorganic substance, Hiorns chooses to cede the task of determining the eventual appearance of the work. Critic JJ Charlesworth has written about the self-supporting nature of the process:
If crystals grow on the body of a BMW engine ... they no longer have anything to do with the human intervention that initially set them in motion. Hiorns makes objects that suggest a sort of independence, a separation from the world of those who see them, as if they have a purpose, or at least a story behind their existence, that exists despite the context in which they are encountered.
(Milton Keynes Gallery 2006, p.6.)
In an interview with the curator James Lingwood, Hiorns stated:
I was very interested in the idea that the artwork would exist aesthetically without my hand, and in me 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 ... Sculpture is slow, and object-making is very slow. The object is being made, 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, the hammer.
(Artangel 2008, p.71.)
The car engine can be understood as a symbol of power and control. To subject the machine to a disabling catalyst is to contravene and subvert its intended use with mute indifference. The engine can no longer perform its function, and is instead suspended as a crystallised expression of power and ingenuity. Acknowledging an affinity to the writings of novelist J.G. Ballard, known for his violent dystopian fantasies that often involve automobile accidents, Hiorns has stated that he sourced the engines from wrecks: ‘without getting too much into Ballard, [the engines] are taken from car crashes. [This was important] because they were much cheaper, the engines were salvaged from wrecks ... The problem with the people who had these BMWs was that they didn’t know how much power they had and couldn’t control them.’ (Artangel 2008, p.79.) Displayed on its steel pedestal, the wrecked, ‘once useful’ engine can be seen as a reflection on human indulgence and futility.
Untitled is part of a series of crystalised objects in Hiorns’s oeuvre. Among other items, the artist has used thistles, cardboard architectural models and other car engines. For his 2008 Artangel commission Seizure (Arts Council Collection), the artist flooded a flat in south London with copper sulphate solution. This remarkable intervention resulted in a cave-like space in which visitors were immersed in a blue crystalline world.
Alex Farquharson and Andrea Schlieker, British Art Show 6, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2005. pp.68–71.
Roger Hiorns, exhibition catalogue, Milton Keynes Gallery 2006.
Seizure, exhibition catalogue, Artangel, London 2008.