Fire and engines: Roger Hiorns sends naked men into the Hepworth Wakefield's Calder

By Sarah Jackson | 30 August 2013

Opening: The Calder, Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield

Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2013). Installation view, The Calder at The Hepworth Wakefield 2013.
Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2013). Installation view, The Calder at The Hepworth Wakefield 2013© Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian. Image courtesy the artist and The Hepworth Wakefield
Several people turn away as a young man starts to undress in front of them. It’s not something you see every day, of course; a young man, casually taking off his clothes and then sitting on a stack of white plastic buckets.

But this is precisely what we came to see – yet still, perhaps it’s politeness or, more likely, good old-fashioned British embarrassment about the human body that instinctively turns eyes away.

Roger Hiorns’ Youth series comprises of a selection of found objects re-framed and activated from their usual everyday utility by the appearance of a naked youth and a fire. Hiorns began work on the series while studying at Goldsmiths during the 1990s as a way of “presenting the human as being up against apparatus in the world”.

This is the inaugural exhibition of The Calder, a new contemporary art space for The Hepworth Wakefield.

Recently renovated by Wakefield Council, it retains much of its heritage as a former textile mill located on the bank of the River Calder. The red brick walls and rough-hewn edges contrast nicely with the David-Chipperfield-designed Hepworth.

Along with the fresh smell of wet concrete, another scent also lingers – it’s likely to be paraffin or some other fire-starting chemical. Even while some people have barely noticed the first young man, another youth undresses and sits on the back of a metal bench (the kind seen at railway stations and bus shelters).

Another man darts forward with a lighter; suddenly flames spring up at the opposite end of the bench.

The naked young man contemplates the flames silently, his body completely still. He only shifts as the flames splutter into nothing and then he strolls, casually, to several stainless steel tables – the kind seen in professional kitchens – and the ritual begins again.

The initial shock of nudity quickly becomes normal. Which is both unsurprising (the idea of removing clothing is invariably more frightening than actually being naked) and a relief, as embarrassment would render the piece pointless.

The objects Hiorns has selected range from plasma screen TVs, arranged as a bench with their screens playing the news to the ceiling, to a jet engine and antidepressants, to a plastic bench smeared with brain matter.

What they have in common is hard lines and a colour screen of grey, black and white. It contrasts abruptly with the pale flesh of the youths and bright yellow of the flames.

This exhibition was planned to coincide with the Arts Council Collections and Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s ambitious display of Hiorns’ Turner Prize nominated Seizure.

This spectacular work saw Hiorns transform an empty council flat in Southwark, London into a glistening crystal grotto by flooding it with 75,000 litres of liquid copper sulphate.

The walls, ceiling, floor – even the bath – have been colonised by deep blue crystals. It is the kind of blue you see on a cloudless day in summer, or in deep Mediterranean waters.

Although markedly different from the Youth series, Seizure reflects some of the same concerns. In particular, the transformation of the ordinary and the impact of this on social interactions and human behaviour.

There is also a sense that having created his sculptures, Hiorns has taken a step back and allowed them to evolve and take on new life. Seizure was initially located in a condemned council estate in London, but an incredible engineering feat has moved the structure, intact.

For those who queued to see Seizure in London, seeing it in the open spaces and natural beauty Yorkshire will leave quite a different impression.

Similarly, much of Youth’s power is handed to others. Without the naked young men, The Calder is merely a space filled with a strange mish-mash of contemporary industrial objects.

Likewise, a livestream of sound from Wakefield Cathedral is also being transmitted throughout the gallery. Unfortunately, the buzz of conversation in the gallery is too loud to hear it at the press viewing, but it’s easy to imagine how the atmosphere would change if you could hear those hushed noises, or even listen to evensong.

These are sounds that neither Hiorns nor The Calder have any control over, and they are reliant on the enthusiasm and good will of Wakefield Cathedral’s clergy, parishioners and visitors in its execution.

Collaboration is key to both the exhibition and the new gallery itself. As well as the support of Wakefield Cathedral, The Hepworth is lucky to have a close working relationship with the local council.

When The Hepworth first opened two years ago, nobody working there considered that to be “job done”. “Having the council on board was significant,” says curator Gemma Yates.

In a time of deep cuts, it’s a bold move for any council to invest both time and money in art projects. It is hoped that The Calder will not only enhance The Hepworth’s reputation as a centre for contemporary arts, but also contribute to the regeneration of the waterfront area.

Although what happens at The Calder next is yet to be decided, Yates mentions that the gallery has been in talks with artists for works involving music and opera.

She surveys the room, taking in car engines suspended from the ceiling, mounds of concrete, naked men and fire, her expression satisfied yet excited. “Anything can happen in this space," she concludes.

  • Open 12pm-6pm (9pm Thursday and Friday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @HepworthGallery and use the hashtag #TheCalder.

More pictures:

Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2013). Installation view, The Calder at The Hepworth Wakefield 2013.
Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2013). Installation view, The Calder at The Hepworth Wakefield 2013© Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian. Image courtesy the artist and The Hepworth Wakefield

Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2005 – 2010). Installation view, The Calder at The Hepworth Wakefield 2013.
Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2005 – 2010). Installation view, The Calder at The Hepworth Wakefield 2013© Gabriel Szabo / Guzelian. Image courtesy the artist and The Hepworth Wakefield

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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