Roger Hiorns review – mad cows and Englishmen caught in the circle of life

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Statues come to life … an installation view at of Roger Hiorns’ show Ikon Gallery. Photograph: Kate Green/KPG, courtesy of the artist and Ikon

There are three naked young men in Roger Hiorns’ Ikon Gallery show. One sits on an overturned x-ray machine. Sometimes he moves over to a jet engine parked on the floor nearby. I imagine the feel of cold metal against his skin. The wall label reads “Military jet engine, fire, antidepressants, youth.” The fire had not been lit on my visit. The antidepressants are in the engine, rather than the young man. Don’t ask me why.

A second engine, and several other works in the show, also include “brain matter”. So, of course, do the youths. And so, reputedly, do I. Hiorns has even mixed the brain matter into a slurry with binder, and made paintings with it. His use of this disquieting material stems from his interest in the so-called “mad cow disease” of the 1980s and 90s, whose effects are still with us. The cause and spread of BSE, and the fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that contaminated humans, became the subject of a long series of documentary works that Hiorns showed in the Hayward’s History Is Now exhibition last year.

Another young man lounges on a beach of crushed granite that was once a church altar, now spread unevenly over the floor. This is a great image – a tableau-vivant of live flesh and atomised stone. It is strange how quiet and reserved it is, with the daylight shafting in. I think of a statue come to life, resting on the remnants of its pulverised plinth. The chants of Evensong leak in from a room beyond, where a video plays an event Hiorns organised at Birmingham’s Anglican cathedral last summer. The choristers and choirmaster, all in their robes, are on their backs, lying on the floor in the body of the church, staring up into the void as they sing. It is startling, an absurd and marvellous displacement.

Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway), 2016, at St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, by Roger Hiorns. Photograph: courtesy the artist and Ikon

Hiorns says that if his works survive they will eventually grow old, as artworks always do, and begin to fall to bits. But the men that began to inhabit his work a few years ago will remain perpetually young, on the cusp of adulthood. They are replaceable – the one that sat on the metal park bench in British Art Show 7 in 2010, the one under a table in a show in Prague last year, the youths here now. In the future, others will come and go, draping themselves over the ruins of Hiorns’ art.

A third naked youth sits in the corner, staring out over a crowd of figures jury-rigged from silicon tubing, old plastic jerry-cans, dismantled engine parts and all kinds of junk, including an anatomical model of a human pelvis and spinal column. The figures dangle from the ceiling, leaking billowing shreds of detergent foam on to the floor. I think of David Medalla’s Cloud Canyon sculptures, currently at the Hepworth in Wakefield, and of the froth on the lips of the dying, of viscera and of wild experiments in human plumbing.

Over on a shelf, another vaguely robotic figure is connected to a vile-looking bag, accompanied by a soundtrack conversation from the BBC Radio Four series Inside the Ethics Committee, discussing the religious complications and dilemmas around the switching off of life-support machines. I have a definite urge to go back to the boy seated in the corner, and check his vitals signs, but I think it is not allowed.

Visitors at Roger Hiorns’s Ikon show. Photograph: KGP/Kate Green, Courtesy of the artist and Ikon

Even so, Hiorns wants us to feel included in the work, rather than to remain mere rubbernecking spectators. He has a plan to bury a decommissioned Boeing 737 airliner somewhere under the outskirts of his hometown of Birmingham. Visitors will be part of the work – buried people in a buried plane. He felt that visitors to his 2008 Artangel project Seizure, in which he completely saturated a London council flat with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution, somehow completed this strange installation. Crunching through the growing blue crystals, I felt I was becoming crystalline myself.

Hiorns has always been full of ideas, even when I was his tutor at Goldsmiths in the 90s (though I doubt I taught him much). Now, he says, he is less interested in ideas than in mood. Two life-size mannequins hang from cables and ropes trussed about their middles, kept aloft by two large electromagnets. One is almost lifelike, replete with tiny male nipples and chest hair, and a more-or-less realistic head and body. The other is all but dismembered, with articulated joints. He is stuffed, we are told, with the pages of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. All I can see is a padding of expanded foam. Heidegger, it seems, is indigestible.

Untitled, 2016, by Roger Hiorns.

Every so often the magnets get turned off and the bodies thud to the floor. This bit of puppetry is satisfying, though the proximity of the figures to a long video discussion with John Collinge, professor of neurology and director of the MRC Prion Unit during the BSE crisis, makes you ask why the mannequins have fallen, why they are so abject. In Hiorns’ show, everything infects everything else. The interview runs back to back with a filmed performance of a young performance artist, Eamonn Harnett, naked and slithering about the floor of an empty room, spinning and turning, rising and lowering himself to the ground. His performance is deeply ambiguous, both erotic and painful.

Most surprising and troubling of all is the status of a series of new paintings, also depicting naked male bodies. The figures look archaic, painted using latex and molten and folded plastic. They have sex with each other and with themselves. Extra penises float about, and fill any otherwise unoccupied orifice. There’s a lot of rogering going on, anal and oral, the figures consumed entirely by the act. In front of them stands a freezer, with a circular hole cut in its top. You are invited to stick your hand in while you look at the paintings. It is deathly cold in there, and your hand comes out freezing. Some, I suppose, like it cold.

These painted men are reduced to base matter and base forms. I can’t tell if Hiorns’ Sex Paintings are about pleasure or death. I flip between enjoyment of the images and fear. Memories of the Aids crisis are unavoidable. I don’t know how to think about them and Hiorns isn’t saying.

Around a corner is another floor of pulverised altar stone. Instead of a live youth, a pair of Sex Paintings hang beyond it, the figures surrounded by yet more disembodied cocks and spermy, lubricious smears, hovering over a black ground in an endless cycle of penetrations and consumption. The entire exhibition is a round of renewal and change, of infection and transformation, of miracle and misery. It goes on.

Roger Hiorns is at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until 5 March. He discusses the exhibition in an artist’s talk on 8 February.