Industrial Anxiety: Amanda Hughen, Roger Hiorns

Roger Hiorns, “Untitled” (2008), Atomised passenger aircraft engine. Dimensions variable. (image via

Chicago — For all its marvels, the modern world is a dangerous place where overnight 500,000,000 eggs can become deadly. This is a development made all the more unsettling because of our tendency to associate eggs with what they produce: life everyday or an everyday (breakfast) meal. Spinach sprouts E. coli. Perhaps next month, the deadly indigestible of the day will be some grain, eggplant, or pork. Suddenly eating of the fruit of the industrial food system is playing toxic tomato roulette.

It doesn’t stop at the produce aisle, either: hydrofracking hundreds of miles north threatens New York City faucets. Who knows what organic compounds get boiled down to their herbal essences and massaged into your scalp. The Gulf of Mexico periodically swirls into a bilious swill that kills all life or else bursts into flames. Haiti flattens, Russia burns, Pakistan drowns, and we invite the painted faces of newscasters, with all the sugarcoated terrors of the day, into our living rooms. What’s next? Where will it happen? Are you safe?

Hughen and Hiorns

Amanda Hughen and Roger Hiorns are two artists who look to this relationship between industrial and anxiety production as source material for their artistic practice. Hughen and Hiorns also serve as a study in contrasts,  approaching the problem from different coasts, with different concepts, and in different traditions.

Amanda Hughen at work on a drawing. (photo by author)

San Francisco-based Amanda Hughen draws and screenprints on stacked layers of Mylar according to a biologic that is uniquely her own. This fictitious putting down of all the modern world’s macro/micro patterns — neurons, network maps, topographies, molecules, and macrostructures — puts distance between their omnipresent reality and their ability to produce everyday unease.

Hughen abstracts the underlying patterns — borrowing from science texts to geological surveys — rendering them all together with lush colors on multivariate levels of murky Mylar. The layers give way to a perplexing sense of optical depth and the varied scale and pattern sources (Bay Area survey lines, nerve-based neurological flowers, Buckminster Fuller spheres) brought together in a single image holds a viewer’s gaze.

Abstracting them this way, Hughen literally mediates science with art — throwing her subjective fantasies between the truth and its representation, and this approach transforms the visual language of modern anxieties into contemplative windows where the hazardous becomes harmless, and the scientific becomes aesthetic.

Detail of Amanda Hughen’s “Neurodevelopmental Disruption” (2010). Acrylic paint and pencil on drafting film, 42 x 108 inches.

On the Roof of the Art Institute of Chicago

Roger Hiorns, on the other hand, is a British artist works in the no man’s land of artistic media. At times a sculptor, sometimes a painter, he’s eschewed the sculptor’s bronze or the inks and pigments of the visual artist in favor of more esoteric materials. With a Futurist’s attention to engines and industrial strength, Hiorns has done some crazy awesome shit. He’s atomized a passenger jet engine leaving no more than a lump of fine art dust for a gallery and its viewers, “Untitled” (2008), and he’s injected a Toyota people-mover engine with brains.

Roger Hiorns “Seizure”(2008), an Artangel / Jerwood Commission, Harper Road, London. (image via

Both gestures are powerful. The first harrowingly illustrates the ashes to ashes dictum and leaves behind particles light enough to travel up in the air with no more than a carbon-neutral sneeze. The second is a squelchy, visceral riff on the phrase “people mover”; an incisive quip reminiscent of the darker message in Wall*E with an uncomfortably real presence attached to it — to say nothing of the fact that it begs the question: whose brains?

Boeing, since its 2001 relocation to Chicago, has done its best to become a good corporate citizen, giving millions of dollars to all manner of organizations across the city — from the Lyric Opera to the Art Institute, Boeing has made its presence, over the last nine years, a venerable force on patron placards across the broad shouldered city. So it’s no surprise to see their sponsorship for Hiorns Modern Wing rooftop installation “Untitled (Alliance)” (2010).

For the installation, Boeing provided support by donating jet engines. Hiorns’s project called for two Pratt & Whitney TF33 P9 engines formerly used on a Boeing EC-135 Looking Glass surveillance craft. An aircraft choice that nods to the surveillance states panopticonical tendencies and that should yield something cool once given to this material manipulating man who once grew blue crystals out of the wall, no?

No. Rather than create a more conceptually rigorous or aesthetically pleasing installation, Hiorns has simply taken those engines, put them on a very expensive roof and sprinkled them with designer pharmaceuticals (mostly of the anti-depressant or anti-anxiety varietal).

Art, afterall, is what you can get away with, right?

Or maybe “sprinkle” with its sundae connotations is too pedestrian for this “provocative gesture” suggesting the “discomfiting conceptual alignment between issues of global security and individual well-being, between anxiety and its alleviation.” A lot of hot air with little in the way of complexity beyond the feat of engineering that any jet engine innately is. A Pratt & Whitney TF33 P9, with its valves and indestructible metallic joints and its elongated aerodynamic tube of a body is a thing of menacing beauty.

Roger Hiorn, “Untitled (Alliance)” (2010) (photo by author)

The installation can be seen as another iteration in Hiorns’s ongoing investigation of engines. But if that’s the case than just putting it on display he should credit its authors — since what intrigues viewers about a jet engine has little to do with anything Hiorns has done here. In fact, Hiorns’s installation strikes me as the kind of wide-eyed overuse of “conceptual” art in the service of a highbrow prank. The installation passes off a lack of familiarity as ingenuity. Here is an unfamiliar object that people are drawn to because we rarely have the opportunity to see it close-up.

Tackling the concept of a macro/micro split like global security and personal anxiety requires a willingness to delve into the complexities of the problem, not just leave those issues “mysterious and ultimately inaccessible” subsequent to the kind of “material alteration” that only an artist can produce with a sprinkle of drugs.

Supposedly, a security guard has also had to call some ambulances for those so drawn to this alien object that they reach out to touch it and slice themselves on the turbine blades.

That’s one way to treat your viewers.

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