Historic breakwater inspires unique piece of public art

What do an historic painting, a military band, an event on water and a giant wave breaker have in common? They’re all part of an exciting public art commission by a Plymouth-based artist who is aiming to shed new light on the city’s breakwater.

Heavy Rock by Keith Harrison is a New Expressions commission for Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. The project is aiming to make a hidden process public as well as producing a contemporary response to the city’s historic collections.

“Not many people realise it but each year up to 12 100-tonne concrete wave breakers are cast at Oreston Quay and then placed in strategic positions on the breakwater,” explains artist Keith Harrison. “The wave breakers help reinforce this fascinating structure, which lies at the entrance to Plymouth Sound, protecting the harbour and anchorages.”

As part of the casting process Harrison has been allowed to install hydrophone sound technology inside one of the wave breakers. The sounds captured by the hydrophones will be relayed back to land and from Wednesday 5 to Saturday 22 August they can be heard as part of an exhibition at Stonehouse-based art gallery, KARST.

The wave breaker will be dropped into position on the breakwater on the evening of Monday 3 August as part of a live event, which will also feature the first public performance of three brand new pieces of music composed by British musician Will Gregory, from Goldfrapp. The pieces will be performed by a 24-piece contingent from HM Royal Marine Band, Plymouth.

“My aim is to create a modern version of a painting from the City Museum and Art Gallery’s collections, which shows the foundation stone of the breakwater being laid in 1812,” said Harrison. “The painting records a unique moment in the history of Plymouth. The breakwater has since gone on to be described at ‘the Channel Tunnel of its era’.”

Boat owners, rowers, kayakers, paddle boarders and canoeists who are out in the Sound that evening are invited to form part of a flotilla for the event. If you would like be involved please see the guidance notes for spectator craft.

The wave breaker will be dropped into position at around 8.50pm on the eastern end of the breakwater, so the best vantage points on dry land will probably be Bovisand and Jennycliff. If the wind is blowing in the right direction people may also be able to hear Will Gregory’s new compositions as they’re being performed.

The Museum and Art Gallery is hoping to broadcast footage from the event via #Periscope. Look out for more details on Twitter @PlymouthMuseum.

A series of other events highlighting the story and significance of the breakwater will take place at the Museum and Art Gallery later in the year.

Deputy Council Leader Peter Smith said: “Each public art project we tackle seems to get bigger and more ambitious and I feel certain that Heavy Rock will help move us on to even more impressive projects over the next few years.

“This project has been a great undertaking and I am very proud of what’s been achieved. It would not have been possible without the support of Babcock, the Royal Navy and a host of other partners. We are extremely grateful to them for everything they have done to help us realise Keith and Will’s vision.”