words William Wiles
Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny” is called “Das Unheimliche” in the original German. Unheimliche means, literally, un-home-ly. The uncanny is familiar but unfamiliar, like our own home, rearranged. It unsettles, stirring up conflicting emotions. Roger Hiorns’ installation Seizure is perfectly uncanny. It is a home, transformed.
Seizure, an Artangel project, is installed in a ground-floor flat that I part of a low-rise modernist housing block in Southwark, south London. To create the piece, Hiorns made the flat watertight and filled it, to the ceiling, with copper sulphate solution. The flat was then sealed, and left for several weeks. Inside, the solution crystallised against the walls, floor and remaining fittings. Then, the remaining liquid was drained, a doorway was cut, and the flat was opened to the public.
The result is astonishing. Entering the building, which is to be demolished after the installation closes, one notices something wrong through a doorway to the right, a gleaming blue wall that stands out among the otherwise universally drab surfaces. You walk into the space itself and the initial effect is captivating – every surface is covered with thousands of sparkling crystals, all of them a remarkable deep blue. It’s like entering a cave encrusted with precious gems, or walking into a huge geode; the cavern-like sensation is further reinforced by the boots visitors must wear, and the uneven, slushy floor surface. The space is literally breathtaking, provoking little “oohs” and “aahs” from the others coming inside. Splendid and beautiful, at first Seizure provokes joy; presently, however, that changes. Visiting caves for pleasure was a practice invented in the 18th century by thrill-seekers looking for a newly identified sensation, the sublime. Like the uncanny, the sublime rests on ambivalence, in Edmund Burke’s original definition of the word, “tranquillity tinged with terror”, danger made delightful. We have had the delight – on to the terror.
The bedsit is only just recognisable as a former home, and it is strange which features survive. There is a bath, which (if its chemical coat could be stabilised in some way) would make a fine piece of “design-art”. A dado rail can still be made out, swollen into a thick ridge. Light fittings still hang from the ceiling, heavy, spiky and dangerous. These familiar features trigger the sense of the uncanny, a direction that Artangel projects have often take, notably Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 House, a concrete cast of a Victorian terrace, and Gregor Schneider’s 2004 Die Familie Schneider, two identical families in two identical homes. All these projects take domesticity, and thoroughly pervert it.
This sense of perversion stems from the air of catastrophe that clings to Seizure. Something has happened inside this flat, and however wonderful the results may seem, they carry an implicit threat: you don’t want it happening again, you don’t want it happening to you. Hiorns cites the early stories of JG Ballard as an influence, and it’s easy to see the conceptual link with Ballard’s 1966 disaster novel The Crystal World. Danger is in the air, a feeling reinforced by the obligatory wellies and gloves. The crystals are reaching out towards you; they have grown, like plants, but they are not plants. If the implacable, uncaring disinterest of nature can be mistaken for malice, wait until you see how hostile minerals can seem.
A large part of this sense of hostility is architectural, not just for any visiting volume housebuilders, who will no doubt be reminded of the rash-like efflorescence that attacks their cheap bricks. As the late architectural theoretician Katherine Shonfield discussed in her 2000 book Walls Have Feelings, the interior spaces of the home are closely psychologically identified with the body itself. In films such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Shonfield says, the heroine’s fear of penetration manifests itself as the breakdown of the integrity of the walls of her home, which flex and split. Compromise equals violation of the body. The invasion of the flat is infection of the inhabitant. Contagion is in the air. Shonfield herself prefigured Seizure with the 1991 installation Dirt is Matter Out of Place, which feathered the inside of a Victorian public toilet. Similar work, exploring similar themes, has been made by the artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey.
Seizure strays into the mystical. It’s a space that has genuine spiritual depth, which seems to come from the work’s literal depth. The crystals turn the space into a sort of fractal, diminishing its volume, but massively increasing its surface area. Surfaces fold out into space, so that flat walls seem to add an extra dimension – one of the mind-bending things about fractal shapes is that they exhibit “partial dimensionality”, so that a three-dimensional fractal actually occupies more than three dimensions, but less than four. The level of visible detail also massively increases, and combined with a sparkling light, the eye finds it hard to pick a point of focus, adding to the unnerving effect.
Also unfocused is the sense of time. The visitors who entered Seizure while icon was there didn’t stay very long at all. It may be a space of considerable beauty and complexity, but it is not an easy place to linger. It is uncomfortable physically as well as psychologically: there is nowhere to lean, nowhere to site, no way to rest. As a local outside suggested, it could make a good (that is, punishing) prison. It stretches out time. Ballard’s crystalline catastrophe was the result of time leaking out of our universe; normal jewels reverse the process, giving us back time. This gift of time, Ballard wrote, might account for the eternal appeal of gems and baroque architecture: “Their intricate crests and cartouches, occupying more than their own volume of space, so seemed to create a greater ambient time, providing that unmistakable premonition of immortality sensed within St Peter’s or the palace at Nymphenburg.” Modern architecture, however, with its “rectangular unornamented facades, [and] simple Euclidean space and time” is “confident of its firm footing in the future and indifferent to those pangs of mortality which haunted the mind of old Europe” – and is thus vulnerable to the encroaching crystals. This patch of Parker-Morris modernity has fallen; or, rather, has been seized.
Seizure can be seen at 151-189 Harper Road, London SE1, until 2 November
images Richard Nicholson