Not content with launching itself as an ambitious and alluring new gallery two years ago, the Hepworth Wakefield has now opened an impressive extension in a former textiles mill next door. Named after the river that runs past this sturdy 19th-century building, the Calder boasts a 600 sq m ground-floor space devoted to contemporary art.
By selecting Roger Hiorns as the first artist to exhibit there, the Hepworth has signalled its willingness to be adventurous. Born in 1975 and now based in London, he is one of Britain’s most promising young sculptors and uses the Calder’s monumental interior – all rough brick walls and mighty metal columns – as a showcase for a series called Youth.
When I enter the space, though, that title seems to bear no relation to the found objects on display, which range from street benches to car and jet engines, either suspended from the lofty ceiling or resting their weight on the well-used floor. Both the engines arrest my attention at once, with their intricate complexity and jutting funnels.
But after a while, the simpler objects become compelling as well. A plastic bench turns out to be lightly smeared with brain matter from a cow; a cluster of white plastic containers are filled with powder from a pulverised altar stone in Venice; an oddly shaped piece of street furniture is stamped “Camden” in large letters, like some municipal memorial. It’s as if Hiorns is inviting us to consider the strangeness inherent in even the most mundane objects. He stimulates us into appraising them as if for the very first time, and honours their true identity by barely interfering with them.
Not that Hiorns has always adopted such a discreet modus operandi. Just outside Wakefield, in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall, his powerful transformation of an empty London council flat can be seen for the first time since it closed to the public in January 2010. The rest of the council block has now been demolished. But the Arts Council Collection acquired the dramatic set of rooms into which Hiorns pumped 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution. The result, called “Seizure”, was a domestic interior encrusted with blue crystals; this has been carefully preserved, so that YSP visitors can encounter this sparkling, sinister space, complete with crystalline bath.
At the Calder, I’m musing on Hiorn’s far more understated aesthetic in Youth when a young man enters, walks towards a window and, without fanfare, slips off his white shirt, black trousers, underpants and sandals. Then he makes his naked way towards the plastic containers housing the powder from Venice and sits on them. Soon afterwards, another slim young man strides in, undresses and settles on the top edge of a black metal bench. Resting arms on thighs, he stares down at a flame burning a small deposit of white paste on the bench’s seat.
When the flame expires, he levers himself off the bench and walks towards a metal table where another pile of paste has been lit. This time, he does not look at the flame at all. Nor does he seem to notice the visitors who are gazing at him. Instead, he frowns and directs his eyes at the Fire Exit door. His expression is grave, bordering on melancholy. And the other naked youth appears equally lost in his own sombre world. Maybe he is listening to the distant sounds of organ and choral music from Wakefield Cathedral, which Hiorns has transmitted into the space.
But not for long. Now the nude performer wanders over to a simple bench where he sits at one end, as if totally unaware of anything. After a while, he walks across to the “Camden” piece and sits there in a slumped pose. By now, both he and his colleague are evoking memories of nude bodies in sculpture from the past, especially on war memorials. Hiorns must have been aware that the Calder factory used to make blankets for the military. The “Camden” furniture now looks eerily like a sarcophagus, while those short-lived flames bring to mind both the “vanitas” still-life tradition and, again, some war memorials.
Even so, there’s humour here. Suddenly, one of the men strides past me towards a coffee table embedded with plasma screens showing BBC TV News. Quite by chance – I assume – he plants his buttocks on a close-up image of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s face talking urgently to camera. The effect is briefly hilarious, but soon he moves on to the jet engine resting on the floor, while the other performer sits on some concrete rounds.
Soon enough, after the final flame dies out, the solemn young men put on their clothes and disappear. Only the objects remain, asserting their essential strangeness as they wait, in silence, for the naked intruders to reappear later in the day.
Until November 3, www.hepworthwakefield.org