Minerals don't have DNA

The crystal house: “Seizure” by Roger Hiorns.

I have squeezed myself into a tiny, abandoned, apartment in the backlands behind South London’s Elephant and Castle. Abandoned, but mysteriously colonised. Who knows who once inhabited this 1960s bedsit, but since they left, an alien substance has taken over. The entire flat – walls, ceiling, fixtures and fittings – has sprouted not mould, not fungus, not graffiti, but something far stranger and more beautiful. Hard, glittering, jagged, bright blue crystals.

A joint product of the fecund Artangel and Jerwood arts organisations, this place of chilly, sinister beauty is Roger Hiorns’ Seizure installation. Despite being well out of the way, in a part-abandoned social housing project in a part of town nobody goes to unless they happen to live there, it has proved extremely popular. Every day, shoals of people arrive, get kitted out with gumboots (it’s wet in there) and gloves, and queue patiently to be allowed into this modern-day grotto, two or three at a time. The best arts news of the autumn is that it has now had its run extended, to the end of the month. I’m prepared to bet that the queue on the last day will stretch right round the block. And this gave me the excuse, finally, to get to see it.

To the viewer the interpretion. What to make of it? To judge by the exclamations of my fellow crystal pilgrims, the principal response is simple wonder at the way something so perfect, so intense in its depth of colour, can transform a prosaic interior. It’s dark in there, just a couple of dim light bulbs to see by. The crystal growths are surprisingly big, pyramidal, sharply pointed, like a dream of Manhattan skyscrapers seen from above. They jostle each other, grow into and over each other. They could fill this space so it became a solid block of mineral. You imagine what it might be like to be trapped in there, the doorway grown over. You might somehow be slowly pulped by the advancing crystalline needles until you were no more than an impurity at the heart of some massive rock formation. But in the meantime, this small concrete, brick and plasterboard dwelling has become a bejewelled cave. And despite what I’ve just said, it is not actively frightening. The crystals cannot grow in air. You have time to get out.

Very little was left in the apartment before Hiorns’s transformation, but what there was – a hanging lamp, a bath – has been taken over completely by the crystal growth. And so – rather like Doris Salcedo’s “Shibboleth”, her famous crack in the floor of Tate Modern last year – your next response is the obvious question: how on earth did he do it?

The answer is very simple, and at the same time remarkably difficult to achieve on this scale. Anyone who has ever had a chemistry lesson at school knows how you grow copper sulphate crystals. You make a super-saturated solution by dissolving lots of them in hot water, and as it cools they re-crystallise, growing on whatever you dangle in the solution. They are indeed a lovely shape and colour, and they can’t help it. The geometric forms they grow into, and the colour they adopt, is mandatory, locked into their chemical composition. Minerals don’t have DNA. They don’t have intelligence, instinct, senses. Crystalline formation just happens, given the right chemical conditions. So Hiorns decided his test-tube would be an entire building. He would instigate the process, and then let the crystals take over.

I should say at this point that Hiorns has a bit of a thing about Brutalist architecture of this period. He likes it, I think. He also likes transforming objects with other substances – not just crystals but also foam, perfume, even fire. And yes, I know that fire is technically not a substance but a reaction, itself a form of transformation. In the past he has crystallised things like models of cathedrals, BMW car engines. They thus become sculpture, with a wave of the artist-chemist’s wand. But a complete habitable interior is more of a challenge, more of a risk. It might not have worked at all.

This is a rather nice little two-storey courtyard of bedsits. The council has now done up the vast slab block behind, but apparently wants to demolish this more humane housing of the same period. So Hiorns had a free hand. He sealed a ground-floor apartment – so turning it into a huge tank – and entirely filled it with 75,000 litres of hot supersaturated copper sulphate solution, poured in through holes in the floor of the home above. Then he waited for it to cool, pumped out the remaining liquid, and broke back into the sealed flat to see what had happened. It had worked. The crystals had done what they had to do. They had turned the unwanted bedsit into a kind of paradise.

So your prime sensation as a visitor is that of the explorer. It’s like venturing into Tutankhamun’s tomb, perhaps, or being the first into one of those time-capsule homes or forgotten sweetshops in boarded-up buildings. But in all of those there is evidence of human life, former activity. Here there is something else. As Hiorns himself points out, even the artist disappears. The substance takes over, and follows its own logic. It makes itself.

That is the power of Seizure. We are in the presence of something that is both beautiful and incredibly powerful, a chemical and physical force. It doesn’t need us. It doesn’t know it’s there, or that we are in it, and what drives its formation is a power that will outlast us all. Hiorns reminds us of our own immense fragility.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. Original text of article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on 9th November 2008, as “My blue heaven”.

Roger Hiorns’s “Seizure”, at 157 Harper Road, London SE1, runs until November 3, from 11 am Thursday to Sunday. Closed Monday to Wednesday. Admission free. Access limited. www.artangel.org.uk