Untitled is one of a series of six untitled, hollow ceramic vessels collectively known as Beachy Head (Tate T12457–T12462). These works are designed to be suspended from the ceiling with stainless steel wire and filled with soap detergent. The ceramic vessel that constitutes the body of Untitled has a glassy off-white surface coating and is made of three component forms: the top form is a long cylinder that tapers in towards its centre; the middle form mimics the that of the top cylinder, but is wider in diameter and more squat in length, while the lower form is a straight cylinder with a banded relief similar to that of a bolt thread. As such, the overall shape of the sculpture loosely resembles a spark plug. From the centre of its base runs a transparent silicon hose that is connected to an air compressor that feeds oxygen into the vessel. When the air compressor is switched on, the oxygen mixes with the soap detergent to produce frothy white foam that exudes out of the vessel’s spout. This column of foam, which maintains the cylindrical form of the inside of the vessel, grows steadily upwards until it can no longer support itself. The foam bends and flops flaccidly around the vessel before oozing on to the floor below, leaving a sticky entropic residue. The device continues to produce the foamy precipitate until the emission is entirely dispersed.
The volume capacity of each sculpture in the series is different, meaning that the lifespan of the discharge varies. Curator Emma Mahony has written that the sculptures ‘have a function but not one that is easily defined; they exist simply to produce foam in an endless cycle of self-replication until they inevitably wear themselves out, fulfilling the law of entropy, which states that all matter must come to a state of rest’ (Haywood Gallery 2005, p.68).
Hiorns’s sculptures, collages and drawings consider the transformation of matter from one state to another, and how such changes are perceived. The artist commonly works with substances that produce unpredictable or uncontrollable growth patterns, such as copper sulphate solutions, which allow crystal formations to accumulate on materials through a chemical process. For example, Untitled 2006 (Tate T12456) was made by submerging a BMW car engine in copper sulphate solution, encrusting it in shiny blue crystals.
Hiorns has explained the creative processes involved in making his work:
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.)
In that they produce a substance that grows and develops organically, the Beachy Head sculptures take on the guise of animate life forms, the air compressors being approximate to breathing apparatuses. Indeed, the critic JJ Charlesworth has written: ‘If there is one constant that operates throughout the work of Roger Hiorns, it is that he makes objects and images that contain the paradox of being both inert and alive.’ (Milton Keynes Gallery 2006, p.5.)
The hanging vessels were displayed together at Milton Keynes Gallery in 2006 and are generally exhibited as a group.
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.