30 August - 3 November 2013
Review by Catherine Spencer
For the last two years, since the Hepworth Wakefield opened in 2011, the green space next to the building has been bordered by a dark and shuttered disused mill. There were once over 30 of these along the banks of the Wakefield waterfront, whose now-dilapidated state stands as a powerful symbol for the area’s post-industrial decline.
Wakefield is a town with more than its fair share of empty structures and shop-fronts, but the mill near the Hepworth Wakefield is buzzing with industry again in its repurposed state as the Hepworth’s new gallery - having been spared demolition back in the 1990s because it was being used, appropriately enough, as recording studios. With its tangible, even visceral link to local histories, the Calder is a freer, more textured space than David Chipperfield’s pristine white rooms in the main building, which will allow the Hepworth breathing room to showcase performance and time-based media.
Roger Hiorns, the artist chosen to inaugurate the gallery, proved an excellent ambassador for its experimental ambitions. Hiorns’ used the opportunity to present the entirety of his ‘Youth’ series, in which he creates surprisingly mournful tableaux of naked young men perching meditatively on austere chunks of found industrial detritus. These include part of a jet engine; a utilitarian-looking bench, half of which has been smeared with cow’s brains; a set of plasma screen televisions displayed face up like coffee tables; and a metal table that has shadows of the operating theatre about it. Sometimes, the youths light small fires and gaze at them as they gradually die out. Even amidst the excited scrum of the launch party, these vignettes managed to command a compelling intensity - not because of the nudity, which is vulnerable rather than aggressive or titillating - but due to the inscrutability of the performers, and their studied air of being so decidedly apart from everything going on around them.
Hiorns’ elemental materials, and his use of the addition principle (youth + object =) create the sense of some complex experiment occurring just beyond the limits of perception, governed by unknown intent. The presence of flesh and blood might activate these strange artefacts of the built world, but they also condition the human body. It is in this respect that the ‘Youth’ series relates to ‘Seizure’, Hiorns’ important 2008 work for which he coated the inside of a London council-estate flat with a spiky blue armour of copper sulphate crystals. It wasn’t that ‘Seizure’ made this space strange, exactly, but it brought out its latent strangeness - an alchemical release that Hiorns manages to apply to objects as apparently prosaic as a concrete bollard. ‘Seizure’, which it seemed for a while might be destroyed along with the rest of the estate, has now been transported in its entirety to the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park. There’s a certain affinity between that crystalline flat and the Calder - an interest in the residual power of particular spaces, and their capacity for reinvention.
As part of the exhibition, Hiorns has also created a sound piece using Wakefield Cathedral, through which the sounds of the Cathedral’s daily life will be transmitted into the Calder. Wakefield’s Cathedral is an incredible building, but one that now seems far too large for the town surrounding it. There’s a haunting element to this aspect of Hiorns’ show. This is a general effect of his openly serious engagement with mortality, but also has specific resonances with this particular site’s histories of comings and goings, of emptiness ghosted by prior activity. The sheer liveliness of the Hepworth itself, however, and the clear impact it has had on both local and national communities prevents the show from becoming solipsistic, and instead draws out the sense of laboratorial excitement that is equally present in Hiorns’ practice.