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Issue 228

Roger Hiorns’s Curious Use of Gay Sex

The artist’s latest show, at Corvi-Mora, London, depicts men stripped of their social identities

BY Paul Clinton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 25 APR 22

In a 2011 interview in The Paris Review, American novelist Dennis Cooper describes rimming as a means of identifying the interior life of a subject. But, Cooper goes on to say, it also demonstrates bodily resistance to appropriations, submitting the meaning-making mouth to an internal blankness. A similar attempt to read sex and desire (abstracted from specific identities) is at play in Roger Hiorns’s exhibition at London’s Corvi-Mora. Here, Hiorns reprises the theme of an earlier series of crude paintings that depict sex between unidentifiable men, pairing this work with a diaphanous sculpture that continues his interest in brain membranes and their role in perception. Naming all these works Pathways (all 2020–22), nodding to the neural, he seems to ask what the formalism of desire can tell us about how we know and reach out to others. By revisiting a particular subject, he adds another question: how are the ways we relate to each other affected by the cognitive and libidinal decline of ageing?

Roger Hiorns
Roger Hiorns, ‘Pathways’, 2022, exhibition view, Corvi-Mora, London. Courtesy: the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Hiorn’s use of gay sex is curious. The idea that desire drives us towards others is a particularly Freudian one, but in Freud interest in otherness is motivated by desire for the sexually different, excluding homosexuals. Yet, it’s not like heterosexual desire embraces difference in a straightforward way: according to Freud, desiring involves the conquest and assimilation of objects, binding lust to a fear of otherness. Hiorns toys with psychoanalytic terms in his press release; prior to this, he has associated heterosexual reproduction with the homogenizing effects of biopolitics, creating a contemporary moment he describes in the same text as ‘thinning now, piss weak’. Previous works, such as The Birth of the Architect (2003), tie engines by umbilical-like cords to model cathedrals, depicting gestation as the ideological and industrial production of regulated beings. Or take Hiorns’s ‘Youth’ (2011–ongoing) series, in which gallery visitors encounter young naked men sitting on burned-out engines or the remains of a smashed altar; youths turned into replaceable parts, their spirits crushed. Hiorns’s work asks what ethical relations are possible when the meaning of the human has been evacuated, like a rectum. 

In the press release, Hiorns describes his newest paintings as attempting to revive a ‘dead neural pathway’ belonging to his ‘younger self’. They represent fantasies or memories that no longer excite. The men, painted on black polycarbonate, appear to grope about in the dark; emaciated, they search for fulfilling contact. They fuck, but mostly they finger, stimulating themselves as they penetrate others, or sticking a digit in alongside a cock, perhaps to increase the pleasure – more likely desperately attempting to feel anything at all. Asses in cross-section reveal the vacant interior Cooper described, hopelessly probed by fingers. One painting shows a man about to fuck a giant empty head, featureless except for a void-like mouth. 

Roger Hiorns
Roger Hiorns, ‘Pathways’, 2022, exhibition view, Corvi-Mora, London. Courtesy: the artist and Corvi-Mora, London 

In Intimacies (2008), American critic Leo Bersani claims that with age, many artists achieve a ‘thinness of meaning’ where figures become empty forms, liberated from their social specificity into the ‘pure potential’ to be whatever. Hiorns’s painted men could be anybody. Because they are stripped of their social identities, like the boys in his ‘Youth’ sculptures, they are objectified and yet emerge as individuals in the space. Bersani, risking essentialism, claims homosexuality offers a model of this empty repetition, an ethics that doesn’t need to fearfully other its objects. 

Yet, for all his formalism, Hiorns’s work pulls towards political realities. Corvi-Mora is situated in London’s Vauxhall, an area full of gay clubs and bathhouses, spaces associated with drug-taking and anonymous group sex, activities commonly viewed as irresponsible and unethical. This may be the strength of Hiorns’s exhibition: to show other ways to view these social relations, while reminding us of the prejudices of the current system. 

Main image: Roger Hiorns, ‘Pathways’, 2022, exhibition view, Corvi-Mora, London. Courtesy: the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Paul Clinton is a writer, curator and editor based in London, UK. He is a lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.