Robert Harrison

Robert Harrison: Of Marks and Boundaries

Posted on Wednesday, January 14th, 2004

Article by Glen R. Brown
10 Ceramics: Art and Perception No. 56 2004

A ring of stones rising from the plain like an array of broken teeth in a massive unhinged jaw; an immense tattoo elaborated on the face of the earth with all the care of a symbol designed to give voice to the dumb; a pair of colossal earthen mounds that swell from the nurturing body of a terrestrial mother: since the earliest efforts in the obscurity of prehistory, the marking of sites has reflected an intense desire to humanise the daunting vastness of the landscape. To be adrift on a silent unbroken expanse is apparently intolerable to the mind. The sea and the desert have been known to cause madness, and it is no coincidence that science’s most convincing explanation of infinite outer space involves a form of self-centrism, a universe doubling back upon itself. The need to personalise space and, above all, to compel it to speak in human terms, has never faded from consciousness. The utilitarian aspects of our highways, bridges, dams, stadiums and skyscrapers may blind us to the metaphorical function they serve in reconciling us with immensity, but we do not fool ourselves into believing that we can dispense with them psychologically. Whether revering it in the silence of a spiritual embrace or dominating it in the interests of an abstract idea of progress, the human inclination is to mark the earth, to disrupt its alien continuity by imposing the physical evidence of human values on its previously uniform countenance.

Canadian-born sculptor Robert Harrison has reflected upon this apparently primal impulse for more than 25 years, studying ancient monuments from Stonehenge to the pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá and designing his own site-specific works to acknowledge patterns in the heavens, respond to environmental forces, and converse on visual terms with the surrounding landscape. Early in his career, he formed the kind of personal bond with the earth that is common in the experience of potters, thrusting his hands into mute but malleable clay and drawing from it products of human design. Between the completion of his undergraduate degree in the mid 1970s and the earning of an MFA at the University of Denver six years later, he concentrated his efforts exclusively on the vessel, resisting the nascent impulse to explore a broader space through his art. The 1970s, however, witnessed a level of sensitivity to ecology that was unprecedented in the modern age. From the introduction of Earth Day to the founding of Greenpeace, the focus on environmental issues early in the decade exerted a profound influence over the art world. For many artists the result was a determination to ally their work with nature and to take advantage of the potential it represented for exploring themes such as ephemerality and regeneration. Harrison found himself increasingly tempted to abandon studio-based work in order to test his creative energies through more monumental tasks.

The opportunity to pursue this inclination came in 1981 when Harrison was invited to work at the Omaha brickworks in Nebraska. Expecting to utilise the large beehive kilns at the site, he impetuously changed his mind and, in two days of feverish digging, created a colossal recessed X in an eroded bank of a clay pit. After laying within it a uniform floor of freshly extruded brick, he carefully documented the excavation in photographs in the manner of earthand-site artists such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. Only six weeks later, as subsequent documentary photographs attest, rain and wind had made a considerable effort to restore to the space its prior continuity – an anticipated consequence that confirmed the primacy of nature over the aspirations of human beings. Buoyed by the success of this experiment, Harrison soon undertook a far more labour intensive earthwork in the hardpan shale of the Montana hills near the Archie Bray Foundation, where he was serving a two-year residency. Although the experience of excavating these natural sculptures contributed significantly to his ability to plan and execute monumental works, more consequential for the development of his subsequent site pieces would be the knowledge of masonry techniques that he acquired at the Bray.

These techniques would be first applied on a large scale in Harrison’s earliest incorporation of architectural allusions in a site-specific work, the famous Potters’ Shrine, which was constructed at the Bray Foundation between 1985 and 1987. This melange of cromlech, courtyard and crenellated wall was conceived not only as a monument to Bray-whose rugged bust, sculpted by Rudy Autio many years earlier, was set within a loggia-but as a testament to the history of the Foundation as a former brickworks. The connection between this quasi-architectural piece from the mid-1980s and the idealist underpinnings of earth and site art in the 1970s was made explicit through the deliberate use of 100-year-old bricks that would otherwise have been destined for a landfill. Recycling has, in fact, characterised aspects of Harrison’s method in the majority of the large public works that he has since produced at dozens of locations in Europe, North America and Australia. Whenever possible, he has attempted to utilise locally obtained resources such as abandoned brick, surplus tile, or even obsolete columns, giving them new life within an unexpected context.

Linked to the concern for recycling, but ultimately more overt and pervasive within his characteristic structures of the past fifteen years, is Harrison’s deep affinity for historical architectural forms, particularly those of the ancient Roman world and their atavistic descendants in Palladian design. Alluding only in the most abstract of terms to the columns, capitals, arches and pediments of this lineage, however, the elements of Harrison’s architectonic compositions cannot truly be called neoclassical. In fact, formal analysis of his work is more likely to conclude that eclecticism is the primary impulse rather than any desire to preserve the integrity of a given historical style. Bicoloured arches suggest Moorish inspiration while downward tapering columns recall Minoan conventions. Mosaic surfaces seem to allude to the interiors of Byzantine churches, and spiralling fluted pillars are evocative of the columns of Venetian palaces. Mingling without losing their identities, these references to the past together constitute a historical pastiche, and consequently can be linked most closely not to any tradition from a distant age but rather to the tendentiously postmodern attributes of 1980s architecture. Interestingly, the very traits that seemed so disconcerting, even frankly bizarre, in the first heady days of that sweeping influence on design have now become historical to the point where they are tinged by nostalgia.

Nostalgia, however, can hardly be characterised as an unexpected consequence of Harrison’s montage mentality. On the contrary, it is courted openly through his paradoxical construction of disintegrating form. His site-specific sculptures, after all, do not fully achieve the status of architecture, since they never become truly inhabitable. To see the architectonic in them is to recognise their status as fragments of imaginary wholes, larger structures of which they are merely signifiers. Moreover, they are implicitly indices, like the ashes of a fire, remnants of wholes rather than components from which more complete entities have yet to be constructed. They cannot escape their fundamental identity with decay even during the actual building process, since the concept that they materialise is already a ruin. Even in this they are nostalgic, since Harrison has drawn inspiration from the late 18th-century fashionable innovation of garden follies: sham ruins constructed between the copses of English gardens to impart to the experience of strolling the grounds the bittersweet scent of dusk in a fantasised Golden Age of Man. Like those eccentric Georgian examples, Harrison’s ersatz ruins are most loquacious on the subject of desire in the present. In fact, they seem openly to disclaim any objective grasp of history.

Nostalgia can be a very personal emotion, associated, for example, with the loss of one’s youth, ideals, dreams, or sanguine vision of abstractions such as human nature. It can also, however, constitute a broader cultural condition-as some have argued is the case for our contemporary “post”-plagued (postmodern, post-industrial, and so forth) context. When a condition becomes a part of a collective experience, regardless of any value judgements that may attach to it, it is especially serviceable within systems of communication, providing the impression of a common framework, a vernacular format, within which meanings are more readily understood. Harrison’s works seem to strive for this vernacular-not, however, by presenting the viewer with the emblems of a common cultural heritage, or even the fragments of a globally comprehensive history, but by striking a deliberately nostalgic chord. The specifics of that nostalgia, as it turns out, are far less important than the general impression, which is more readily ascribable to a common contemporary experience. Harrison’s works could be called, for that reason, socially oriented. There is no question that the public presentation of his work makes that a desirable quality.

There are clearly other common grounds that Harrison aspires to encompass, one of which is not immediately obvious but nonetheless central to the development of his compositions. Despite the ambiguous suspension between sculpture, landscape and architecture, he considers his works to be fundamentally tied to a ceramics discourse. If his walls form tentative enclosures, their implicit potential for containment is something he attributes to the sense of volume that he acquired through his early work as a potter. He has, in fact, characterised some of his recent sculptures as vessels, specifically bottles. The fact of their material construction from ceramic – whether in the form of pre-manufactured or handmade brick and tile – is one of the more obvious links to the concept of pottery which still includes in its definition the requisite of a composition from clay. By continuing to work primarily with objects made of fired clay, Harrison cannot, in fact, be easily excluded from ceramics discourse, although he can certainly be marginalised, especially for his deliberate and conspicuous incorporation of non-ceramic materials such as steel culvert pipe into his constructions. The margin, however, is precisely the location that he would select for his work. If he seeks a common cultural ground on one level, his intent on another-that on which medium is fundamental to meaning-is to press the boundaries.

The boundary of one field always implies another, and Harrison’s brick-constructed works are perhaps most interesting for what they suggest about the spaces beyond a studio-ceramics discourse. Chief among these is a field that shares a common bloodline with contemporary studio ceramics and has only been separated from it by modern notions of the disciplinary distinctions between art and science. I mean, of course, industrial ceramics. If Harrison makes works that are shaped by the concept of a ceramic bottle, he constructs them equally from the engineering principles, specialised masonry skills, and above all modules (bricks) that are associated with that other ceramics field-the one disclaimed like an embarrassing relative from the working class whenever ceramists are in conversation with “fine” artists. Harrison’s works are a reminder of the shared lineage of the contemporary branches of the ceramics tree, and the nostalgia that they inspire is no doubt for many ceramists linked to a longing to recognise the part of the past that is largely invisible in museums of ceramic art and the pages of books on the history of pottery. Harrison’s works openly acknowledge that discretely concealed past, and, like any frank confrontation with the repressed, can therefore be considered a healthy counter to the status quo.

Dr Glen R. Brown is Associate Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, USA. He is a regular contributor to Ceramics: Art and Perception and other art journals.