Plymouth has many hidden treasures and, although clearly visible from the shore, its breakwater surprisingly turns out to be one of them. Commissioned by Plymouth City Council as part of the programme ‘New Expressions 3’, artist Keith Harrison draws attention to the continuous process of adding hulking, 100-tonne, concrete wave breakers at strategic points on the breakwater, which lies at the entrance to Plymouth Sound.
As a starting point for his project ‘Heavy Rock | Plymouth Sound’, Harrison choose a historic painting by George Barrett Jr. - ‘Laying the Foundation Stone of Plymouth Breakwater’ (1812) from the collection of the Plymouth City Museum. In Barrett Jr.’s painting, a flotilla surrounds the ship carrying the first wave breaker, amongst them a boat hosting an orchestra. This image led Harrison to the idea of installing hydrophone sound technology into one of the new wave breakers, scheduled to be ‘dropped’ as part of a live public event in August, accompanied by a live performance of a commissioned musical score by Will Gregory of Goldfrapp.
In addition to its links with heritage and the sculptural quality of the wave breakers, there are various underlying aspects and networks that Harrison’s project relates to - the challenge of rising sea levels, the continuous need for maintenance of the breakwater and the various people involved both in the creation of the wave breakers and the realisation of ‘Heavy Rock | Plymouth Sound’. Harrison explicitly celebrates the two men that physically made his wave breaker on a commemorative plate, in the administrative data and in the scaled down series of wave breakers that are included in the accompanying exhibition onsite at KARST Projects. And there is certainly the unpredictable issue of the weather – initially the dropping of the wave breaker was scheduled for the opening of the exhibition at KARST in July, but had to be re-scheduled and is now set for August. This factor of unpredictability is actually something Harrison happily embraces, and is also apparent in his other projects.
Harrison has, in recent years, developed quite a few exciting temporary large-scale projects involving sound and ceramics. His massive installation ‘Float’ (2011) at Jerwood Visual Arts was directly inspired by Werner Herzog’s epic film ‘Fitzcarraldo’ in which Klaus Kinski plays Caruso records from a steamship to communicate with the indigenous tribes in the Peruvian jungle. Harrison played his Caruso to an art audience from a high wooden structure with twenty-six speakers muted with clay. His residency as a ceramic artist at the Victoria & Albert museum resulted in the performance ‘Bustlehome’ at De La Warr Pavilion in which metal band Napalm Death set its sound waves to destroy a tiled installation. For the current ceramics exhibition ‘Fragile’ at National Museum Cardiff, Harrison was commissioned to make the large interactive installation ‘Mute’ in which visitors play music through ceramic speakers that will eventually deteriorate.
Harrison makes no use of ceramics in ‘Heavy Rock | Plymouth Sound’, but the idea of making, unmaking, remaking as well as the use of sound in its various connotations is a continuum of his recent works. The centre of the exhibition at KARST is a life-size wooden replica of the huge mould used to make the new wave breaker. In anticipation of its ‘drop’, the wave breaker currently is waiting in the dock and is already capturing sounds of its environment there. These are relayed into the gallery, playing via Bluetooth to a vibrating speaker housed in the wooden mould, through which Gregory’s score also alternately plays. Surrounding the mould are a series of large drawings (which always form a fundamental start for Harrison as a way of “throwing ideas around”) and a copy of the printed and recorded musical score. Eventually a documentary of the dropping event, filmed by Jared Schiller will also be added. Once in place, Harrison’s wave breaker will capture the sound of the sea, boats and animals surrounding the breakwater, adding another imaginative strata, not only to the already impressive history of Plymouth Sound, but also to Harrison’s oeuvre, which certainly is one to watch out for. In this wonderfully layered project, the exhibition at KARST is thus only the tip of the breakwater.