'To get back to that metaphor of Oz ... through the force of the twister, you're propelled to this central image ... The people go there, the child and the scarecrow, to the Emerald City of Oz which is a palace - but essentially a crystalline buildup ... to me, on a kind of fairy-tale level that's indicative of something ... I don't exactly know what the actual building of Oz looks like. Oz, like Atlantis, is this difficult place ... a vanishing point, you know' (Robert Smithson, 1970)
The Crystal Land
"I turned on the car radio: '... countdown survey ... chew your little troubles away ... high ho hey hey ...'. My eyes glanced over the dashboard, it became a complex of chrome fixed into an embankment of steel. A glass disk covered the clock. The speedometer was broken. Cigarette butts were packed into the ashtray. Faint reflections slid over the windshield ... Under the radio dial (55-7-9-11-14-16) was a row of five plastic buttons in the shape of cantilevered cubes. The rear view mirror dislocated the road behind us. While listening to the radio, some of us read the Sunday newspapers. The pages made slight noises as they turned; each sheet folded over their laps forming temporary geographies of paper. A valley of print or a ridge of photographs would come and go in an instant. [...]
The quarry resembled the moon. A grey factory in the midst of it all looked like architecture designed by Robert Morris. A big sign on one building said THIS IS A HARD HAT AREA. We started climbing over the piles and ran into a 'rock hound', who came on, I thought, like Mr Wizard, and gave us all kinds of rock-hound-type information in an authoritative manner.We got a rundown on all the quarries that were closed to the public, as well as those that were open.
The wall of the quarry did look dangerous. Cracked, broken, shattered: the walls threatened to come crashing down. Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration,rock creep, debris slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence. The grey sky seemed to swallow up the heaps around us. Fractures and faults spilled forth sediment, crushed conglomerates, eroded debris and sandstone. It was an arid region, bleached and dry. An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction. A chaos of cracks surrounded us. [...]
As we drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, we talked about going on another trip, to Franklin Furnace; there one might find minerals that glow under ultraviolet light or 'black light'. The countless cream colored square tiles on the wall of the tunnel sped by, until a sign announcing New York broke the tiles' order ..."
Extract from Robert Smithson, 'The Crystal Land' (1966), reprinted in Jack Flam (ed.), The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996
"Entirely lifeless, based on nothing but the dynamics of inorganic chemistry, the crystal nevertheless is said to 'grow'. It invades and coats a surface with absolute indifference, like mould or rust. And yet, unlike either of these - organic or inorganic processes - it is not necessarily an entropic process. While a mould might exploit the decay of a dead tree that it grows on, or while rust signifies the alteration of iron as it is exposed to air and water in a process of oxidisation, the process of crystallisation is one of resolution; it is what happens when the internal chemical instability of the copper sulphate solution resolves itself through the formation of the crystal.
Perhaps it is also significant that in the process of crystallisation, transformation is achieved through an internal process rather than external application. In a biological process such as the growth of a mould, the transformation of one sort of matter into another requires some external input of energy or outside substance. Similarly, with an inorganic process such as rusting, the process occurs only through a combination of external elements - the presence of oxygen and water. By contrast, crystallisation is an ordering of molecules within the crystal solution itself.
Crystallisation, then, is the purest expression of a self-contained, self-producing process of matter which goes from internal instability to stability, indifferent to materials and energies outside of it. In the iconography of Roger Hiorns' work, it is the clearest expression of the auto-generative theme that runs throughout. In the context of Harper Road, and of the crystallisation which has overcome an entire space of habitation, it is also the most absolute contrast to the processes of life and of living that this space bears witness to. [...]
The dense, dark cobalt blue of Seizure, its implacable and complete smothering of the straight lines of the original flat, seems to express a blank indifference to the troubles that afflict human building and human dwelling. If Seizure had continued its growth, one might imagine how the angles of the space would progressively disappear, as the crystals continued to grow inwards, towards each other. Ingrowing, like a crystal geode, this former space of human habitation - with its worn lino and peeling paint, with all the marks left by a living person - would be filled up, would disappear, transformed into pure crystal growth, with all signs of former human habitation obliterated. And with its cave-like floor, undulating with compacted crystals, Seizure suggests a return of the geological and inorganic world of prehistory. Rather than the complex and unstable relationship between human beings and their own built world, Seizure offers a lifeless form which, with its poisonous and lacerating surfaces, cannot even offer the primitive human shelter of a cave.
Auto-generative, inward-looking and ingrowing, independent of human intervention and human touch, Seizure contains Hiorns' fascination with the metaphorical potential of the inorganic, and of the strange life of inhuman processes. 'Seizure' might indicate the recovery of something that is rightfully owned, or a moment of paralysis or sudden arrest in the processes of a living organism. Here, in this flat that has become not a cave but a crystal geode, it is as if the living space of modern humanity is being reclaimed by the inorganic. While a more conventionally Romantic ecological narrative might imagine the reclamation of human space by organic nature - ruins overgrown by plants and trees - Seizure expels even organic nature in favour of the inorganic, choosing simple molecular growth over that more complex and curious molecule, DNA.
Seizure's perversely inhuman spectacle doesn't present us with the scene of a modern world, derelict or abandoned, or a futuristic fantasy of the ruins of a bygone civilisation. Instead it negates this human world and its human-scaled architecture, filling interior space with hard, inert matter, reclaiming it from those who have given it up. Seizure's paradoxical existence lies in the fact that, like any crystal geode, it has to be cut open to reveal its internal order and complexity, its hidden opulence and dazzling colour. In other words, the very act of seeing its internal form assumes a human presence; yet in this scenario, it is the human witness to the crystallised space which has become alien. No longer a derelict space of modern human habitation, Seizure positions the human spectator itself as trespasser. Seizure's internal order is a physical phenomenon before it is a visual one - by entering it one brings to it one's own human sense of visual, aesthetic value as if it were an intruder. However much we think of it as an artistic spectacle, Seizure remains indifferent. All it does is grow, in darkness. [...]
In this poisonously downbeat cultural atmosphere, it is not hard to grasp how Seizure resonates, even as it remains indifferent. Seizure's entropic, mineral and inhospitable formation, independent of human will, echoes all of our worst moments of doubt about what a world without humans would mean. The machine for living in has stopped. There are no signs of life. Art enters in".
Extract from JJ Charlesworth, 'Signs of life', in Roger Hiorns: Seizure, London: Artangel, 2008
Images: (top) 'Iberian quarry no. 3', photograph by Edward Burtynsky. For Burtynsky's website, see here. (Bottom): Robert Smithson's drawing, 'Map of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis)', 1969
For further details of the conception and making of Roger Hiorns' Seizure, a 2008 Artangel commission in South London, see here and here