Roger Hiorns @ Ikon, Birmingham

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The Birmingham weather beating its seasonal tattoo upon the roof of the Ikon provides a soundtrack of no small irony as, accompanied by the spirit of Antonin Artaud and my six-year-old Son and with a handmade poster declaiming human BSE as a conversational topic-starter, we are politely informed of the explicit content beyond. We take heed of this caution and, indeed, there are penises to behold, though their depictions are merely cartoonish, and not quite as explicit to stir Artaud’s spirit. I mention to him that there is more than a hint of Ballard to this exhibition and so, discouraged to venture any further and already perceiving that the fare on offer is not nearly as cruel or absurd enough for him, he decides to wait outside. Had I also mentioned to him that the questionable imagery was to be found on paintings made of brain matter, I muse, perhaps his enthusiasm would not has dissipated so rapidly.
I feel wholly justified in invoking Artaud’s ghost for this occasion for, if not in the individual works themselves, then certainly within Roger Hiorns’ modus operandi does the late playwright also haunt. One only has to listen to Hiorns enthuse about the body – its fragility, its impermanence, its bloody-minded capacity to survive – to hear echoes of Artaud’s oft-repeated rant:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
Then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
And restored him to his true freedom.”

We guard ourselves constantly from the dangers of the world; we distrust its total indifference to our perpetuity, and yet in doing so we inevitably surrender ourselves to those elements which we fail to perceive. This has been at the heart of Hiorns’ output for a number of years now, and accordingly this new exhibition feels like a retrospective in all but name.
Once more, Ikon have selected a body (pun only slightly intended) of work which sits somewhere fashionably in the middle of concept and delivery and which plays on the gallery’s layout sparingly, yet with the feeling of contrivance. As though Hiorns himself vacillated between “too much” and “too little,” decided upon the former only to pad the remaining space out needlessly with work of spurious kinship to the rest; invention sits uneasily amongst a number of nigh-on unnecessary works. Already there is a confusion of materials: on the one hand, Hiorns has clearly handed the lion’s share of his most recent, untitled, exhibition over to the body, hence the piqued interest of Artaud’s discorporated spirit. Simultaneously, however, the artist’s obsession with jet engines refuses to give way to the dominant theme. There are the powdered remains of such an engine, like a wild card set into an oblong on the floor and incongruous with the anatomical thread herein. Like a joke that one cannot bring oneself to stop telling, Hiorns has been displaying this piece for at least three years already, and perhaps should now let go.
This is not to suggest that the work as a whole is in any way old hat. There are some profound sparks on offer throughout the first floor, such as the weighted stunt dummies which hang in a Damoclean manner from the main wall (one of which, Hiorns ensures us, contains a copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, although we have only his word on this) and the aforementioned Ballard-esque humanoid forms. Had the late HR Geiger (who famously trod more heavily upon the realm of the phallic) extended his vision of the biological incorporating the mechanical to include the machinery readily available to all, rather than relying on an idea which was uniformly one of science fiction, his output may well have resembled the technologically-transmorphic “bodies” hung (inferred symbolically) from Ikon’s ceiling. All historical and literary allusions aside, the key issue here is that Hiorns is becoming an artist with the depth and scope to fill Tate Modern’s colossal Turbine Hall, yet still labours to produce sculptural works for a gallery space on a human scale. He wants us not to be a mere audience because these works come alive when we interact with them; they only realise their full meaning when we able-bodied and fully organic creatures walk among them, so that not just our differences to these bastardised figures stand out, but also our similarities.

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Roger Hiorns has a keen eye for those elements of quotidian contrivances which emulate human nature: thus we encounter assemblages of car parts steadily ejaculating foam – a visual shorthand, one imagines, for the human propensity for talking much, yet saying little. Hiorns, however, is not so cynical. There is hope here for humanity in all its fleshy, febrile organic frailty. We can live, Hiorns says, beyond epidemics, beyond political turmoil and further beyond what our increasingly-delicate climate can burden us with. Perhaps because the individual body still holds sovereignty over yesterday’s dystopian vision of a Brave New World, Hiorns also refers to older work addressing the issue of vCJD and, more broadly, the body’s susceptibility to micro-organic attack.
His sculptural work alludes more to the failing of the human body than it does to human failings, as one can intuit when passing from one room containing these aforementioned hybridised marionettes into another with an upended (and presumably defunct) X-ray machine. Topical, in an age of endless NHS cutbacks, the piece retains a dry wit of its own: the dead machinery left to rot as the patients it once assisted back to health suffer a similar fate.

There is nothing more useless than an organ!” cries Artaud’s mad ghost from the courtyard below and I – taking my Son by the hand and re-joining him outside– am compelled to agree.

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Pavel Büchler – (Honest) Work @ Ikon, Birmingham

My entry to the Frieze Writers’ Prize 2015. It never stood a chance.

In 1997 Michael Haneke’s television adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle was met with overall critical ennui. The director suffered accusations of flat characterisation and lackadaisical narrative, which was surely the point (as some sympathetic critics observed). The truth is, Kafka belongs to abstraction: we are more accustomed to thinking of the Czech writer as an idea of isolation, alienation and bureaucratic absurdity than as a composer of considered drama. This is perhaps why so many artists are wont to turn to Kafka for reference, as to lift these factors from their literary setting is to understand the abstract nature of his characters – in The Castle, K. is frustration; he is alienation. If one were to place K. in a contemporary setting, he would doubtless epitomise Zygmunt Baumann’s other: that which has no societal strata and falls through the cracks in our globalised social geography, recognised only as diaspora.

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Pavel Büchler’s most recent (retrospective) exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery features references to The Castle prominently, perhaps subconsciously recognising that Kafka’s great unfinished novella loses none of its potency by being cut off abruptly (Haneke himself honoured this by having his film come to a full-stop in precisely the same place as Kafka’s book). Indeed, one could argue that it is this quality of narrative sudden-death which has kept Kafka’s voice so vital in the years since his death, as it automatically precludes itself from resolution – K. is eternally trapped in the bureaucratic purgatory of non-admittance to the castle, and as such we sympathise with his societal ouroboros. Büchler here gives us this abstract frustration neat, stripped of its narrative trappings. A solitary figure taps away on a typewriter and presents the viewer with the imperative “SILENCE PLEASE.”; antiquated Marconi speakers are arranged in a tree-like formation and simultaneously blare out fanfares and excerpts from The Castle in various languages and dialects, an aural cacophony which itself permits no accessibility. A resituated EXIT sign partially conceals the ghost of a typeface remaining from one of Julian Opie’s many past exhibitions, ostensibly a prison for a desperate fly seeking egress as K. seeks ingress.

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If one keeps to the theme of contemporaneity, then one could say that few are the cities currently more apposite than Birmingham to host the work of Büchler: the Czech-born artist has, over the past three decades, carved out an oeuvre for himself which draws much of its strength from a Western disinclination to discard ephemera in tandem with its constant and exponential technological turnover, and to this end the Ikon – less than ten minutes on foot from the former Central Library, a Brutalist structure forsaken in favour of a new architecturally Altermodernistic building – is perfectly in situ to frame the macrocosm offered by the former library: just as Büchler’s tape-to-tape cassette recorder hangs on the wall of the gallery, functional yet still obsolete, so too does the gutted ex-library sulk redundantly in the shadow of its successor.

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Büchler has a keen eye for re-situating material, and if his allusions to Joseph Kosuth appear somewhat superfluous then one needs only to afford his prints (“One and Three Words”) a second thought: the ingenuity here is that Büchler has transposed the philosophical model as expressed by Kosuth in his instantly recognisable One and Three Chairs from the Heideggerian to the Wittgensteinian, neatly encapsulating along the way both Conceptual art’s methodology and its forms of expression. One can, of course, argue that – regardless of insight – the self-referentiality of Conceptual art is something which has by now been covered from all angles, yet Büchler’s intellectual in-jokes work too on their own merits. Here, the mannerisms of Kosuth, Weiner or Huebler are presented as small snippets of literature to complement both The Castle and Samuel Beckett’s Watt (an excerpt of which is applied to the gallery’s entrance). The parenthetical honesty of the exhibition’s title is interpreted this way as a truthful representation of modern Greenbergian law, in that the old highs and lows of post-war culture are no longer segregated in any real (honest) way, and artists such as Pavel Büchler (whom also serve as our modern cultural theorists) give us the intellectualism in an increasingly anti-bourgeois age. Honest work, indeed.