Published in This Is Tomorrow, 2011. Original article here.
It doesn’t really look like much at first, Keith Harrison’s contribution to the Jerwood Makers Open. At first glance, ‘Float’ is a stack of wooden boxes, still strapped to the transportation pallets as they greedily take up most of the main gallery. But while deliberate, this first impression is a lie. Take a closer look and so much more is revealed, and it is wonderful.
“I would hope the work evokes a sense of monumentality,” says Harrison. “I am interested in the line between creation and destruction, functionality and obsolescence.”
There were many wide eyes in the audience during Harrison’s performance on the opening night of the Jerwood Makers Open, which presented the four recipients of the Jerwood Visual Arts grant for applied arts. Flashing a modest smile towards the crowd, a tracksuit-clad Harrison climbed on top of the float, where he perched down and turned up the volume. The boxes making up ‘Float’ are in fact speakers, delivering sound from the audio equipment sitting on top. A fragile sound squeezes its way through the electronics, struggling with the clay which has been poured inside. The clay changes the sound, and in return, the reverberations of the music causes it to break down. Soon it will all be destroyed, but until that happens, the work is a determined flag whacked into the ground in celebration of hope over logic.
A significant inspiration for ‘Float’ is Werner Herzog’s 1982 film ‘Fitzcarraldo’. In particular, Harrison was moved by the scene where the title character travels up a Peruvian jungle river in a steam boat, playing Caruso through a gramophone to communicate with the locals. But Fitzcarraldo first had to haul the steamer over a mountain, a mad feat driven by obsession.
“The film was the starting point from which I made a number of drawings, trying to find an equivalent to the scene in the film. The speakers themselves start to make up the form of the vessel on which the decks would sit,” says Harrison. “The aesthetics of the work are in many respects also derived from the function of the clay and electronics,” he adds, explaining how the raw clay functions as an insulator, internalising the sound and creating vibrations due to the tension of the suppressed energy. The clay will break down gradually, releasing the sound more fully with each play.
“The title ‘Float’ has associations with the ship in the film, but is also a reference to carnival and sound systems in dancehalls and racked up on lorries,” says Harrison. “Although the film Fitzcarraldo, and the experience of Jah Shaka’s soundsystem [at St George’s Hall in Exeter, 1994], were central to the development of the work, I hope it stands rather more enigmatically between the two as a work in its own right – as an oversized monument with a capacity to do damage to itself and the surroundings.”
This potential for damage stems partly from the size of the piece and the sheer number of speakers, as it is positioned threateningly close to the glass wall in the gallery. But there is also an element of destruction in the fact that the audio equipment has been deliberately compromised by the clay, and it is a wonder it works at all. “[The clay] renders the work poised between the damage it could cause [due to] the clay’s potential as a projectile as part of a sound blast, and the nullifying role the clay plays as an absorber of energy.”
‘Float’ is part of a series of experiments in clay, a theme Harrison says he is not quite finished with: “All previous works have been a series of live experiments combining the constants of clay and electricity with a third factor employed in attempt to disrupt this relationship.” With ‘Float’, sound is the disruptor, but Harrison says he may use something else next time: “There are a number of projects involving underfloor heating and telephone switchboards that I would like to realise in the future.”
So what will happen to the work once nature has taken its course? Harrison hopes ‘Float’ will last until the end of the exhibition, but this depends on how loudly the music is played. “Ultimately I would like to put the work into a carnival, like Notting Hill or Bridgewater, travelling on the back of a flatbed lorry and play it to destruction,” says Harrison. “In the end all [my] works are optimistic acts in which potential for failure is actively embraced in pursuit of a notion. An audience is required to bear witness to this act.”
However much optimism Harrison or his audience can manage to muster up, the destruction of ‘Float’ is certain. But still, as the work slowly breaks down, there is something deliciously defiant about the attempt to deny the inevitable. With each play a new sound is created, and this causes further destruction. Fitzcarraldo’s vessel did not make it in the end, and neither will Harrison’s. But the answer may well be in the attempt; as Harrison says: “I want to get the ship over the mountain.”