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Roger Hiorns
The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603
May 1, 2010 - September 19, 2010

Watching You Watching Me
by Joel Kuennen






Roger Hiorns is a London-based artist who has been making waves and iridescent crystals across the pond for the last few years, most recently being shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2009 for his installation entitled SEIZURE. From submerging thistles, engines or entire rooms in a solution of copper sulfate, to pulverizing jet engines into fine dust, Hiorns' work exhibits an approach that lacks a certain reverence and will guarantee him a lengthy shelf life in the art world.

Luckily for Chicagoans who haven’t been able to make it over to Europe to see this artist's work, the Art Institute of Chicago invited Hiorns to create an installation on the Modern Wing’s Bluhm Family Terrace, the artist’s first-ever collaboration with a major American museum.  The result of this is Untitled (Alliance), on view May 1 until September 19, 2010 and is free to the public since its location does not require admission to the museum.

Immediately visible are two Pratt and Whitney TF33 P9 engines that were once mounted on Boeing EC135 Looking Glass airplanes (view of the installation seen below). The engines are partially deconstructed to the point where, as the wall text points out, the "discomfiting strength" of these 15-foot long mechanical monsters becomes visible. The turbine casings barely cling to their metal cylinders, ripped blue and orange gaskets tenuously secure once life-maintaining connections. Rusty bolts and nuts regularly dot the segments of the engine.

Disembodied, the two engines sit parallel to each other; their own visible weight enough to keep them from flying away. From the front, a bullet head, from the rear, a rocket ship. This is the closest look I've had at the machinery that I normally take for granted: the massive engines that suspend millions of people across the world in mid-air every day. The thought runs through my mind: what if one of these hundreds of bolts fell out, what if this orange electrical tape that binds these two wires together were to loose its adhesiveness? Subsequently, my first response to this piece is to question our societal reliance on the hidden mechanisms that underpin our everyday life. Simply by taking the casing off the engines, Hiorns unmasks the precarious pile upon which we sit.

However, this piece isn't just a commentary on the technology that enables our everyday life, but also on the security and surveillance that now accompanies it. As mentioned earlier, these two engines are taken from the Looking Glass airplane, which is a long-range surveillance aircraft used by the U.S. military. Another aspect of the work that would be unknown without the aid of the wall text is that each engine contains hidden "pharmaceutical substances associated with the treatment of trauma and depression."

As I sat looking at these engines, I noticed a 360-degree surveillance camera mounted above the terrace, watching me. The museum itself is an act of surveillance in a few different ways. There are the obvious modes: guards and cameras that inhabit any museum, all of whose eyes are trained on you, the museumgoer. This heightens a sense of Foucaultian self-governance in subjects moving through the museum space and leads to a second, deeper condition of surveillance that the museum invokes.

In The Birth of the Museum (Routledge: 1995), the author Tony Bennett outlines the genealogy of the museum as a social space. Originally it functioned much like fairs and amphitheaters. It was "an instrument of social discipline as it [is also] a means of celebrating the citizenry's co-presence to and with itself." The museum, after opening to the public and becoming a civic institution instead of a privatized one (though one could argue that in many ways the museum still retains its private lineage), became the sphere par excellence in which to teach the subject to look and be looked at. The museum houses objects and subjects view those objects.  But through this act of viewing, what Bennett calls a "scopic regime," the subject is transformed. The subject is made aware that they are on view along side the objects in the museum and their comportment is altered through this realization: the subject is made object.

Depending on your theorist, this means either one of two things when it comes to anxiety. Surveillance or a subject-made-object, either alleviates anxiety through the perception of “security” and the subsequent establishment of scopic order, or it induces anxiety due to the loss of freedom.  Surveillance and anxiety are co-determined.

To abate the anxiety we feel due to the perceived threat of the unknown, we surveil the spaces we inhabit, as well as the ones we don't. It is important to remember that surveillance is not always necessary in response to a perceived threat of violence, but it is  also a way to bring-into-order that which is unknown--hence, scopic regime. We are surveilled, made object through the scopic power of our own anxiety, but this is an uncomfortable position. A subject in this position feels anxiety in their interaction with a world that requires change, requires flexibility and possibility. Anxiety is then produced when the subject realizes it has ceded control of the self to the scopic regime for the sake of alleviating anxiety.

The scopic regime is today a dominant order that, for the sake of security and safety, suspends the existence of the subject. Hiorns' work, Untitled (Alliance) comes back together at this point. By weathering the engines, and stationing them as disembodied objects, he comments on the mechanism that we too often forget but operate under everyday-- the regime of surveillance and anxiety.

--Joel Kuennen

(All images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago and used by permission.)

Posted by Joel Kuennen on 5/24/10

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Las_meninas you are kidding, right
From the banality of its simplistic idea to the blatant overstatement that the artist "comments on the mechanism that we too often forget but operate under everyday-- the regime of surveillance and anxiety." (FORGET? It's bruited about by the densest of people.)--this work and the attendant review illuminate the destitution of much art today. Ignored are the visceral carthesis of Beauty and truly creative insight, seemingly in the name of confirmation simple-mindedness.

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