Leah Clements and Harun Morrison’s Underwater Revelations

Jamila Prowse speaks to the artists about their approach to new, aquatic temporalities, from ocean to darkroom, as they have separate shows at Birmingham’s Eastside Projects

BY Jamila Prowse, Harun Morrison AND Leah Clements in Exhibition Reviews , Interviews , UK Reviews | 26 JUL 21

At Birmingham’s Eastside Projects, Leah Clements and Harun Morrison have been exploring the ways that water alters our perception of time in parallel solo shows, not originally scheduled to run in tandem, but united due to pandemic-related delays. Water features as the underlying element in Morrison’s ‘Experiments with Everyday Objects’, which features videos, photographs, sound works and a selection of ordinary items that recover public and personal histories, including the Eagle & Tun pub in Digbeth [where Eastside Projects is located], which featured in the music video for UB40’s ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983) but was recently demolished to make way for the HS2 railway. Meanwhile the artist’s narrowboat, Zoar – which he navigated from London’s Regent’s Canal to the West Midlands for the show – has been converted into a camera obscura and dark room. For Clements, water serves as a catalyst for renegotiating the viewer’s relationship to temporality. Her exhibition ‘The Siren of the Deep’ centres on a freestanding pool, which is animated by a looped moving-image work and a sound piece featuring oral accounts from divers, astronauts and people who have experienced a religious or spiritual epiphany.

leah clements the siren of the deep
Leah Clements, The Siren of the Deep, 2021, installation detail. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham

While Clements evokes the expansion of time that occurs when divers are at the bottom of the ocean and experience an overwhelming desire to stay under, Morrison explores how water functions chemically as a photographic treatment and ecologically as a psychological and physical support. In both these exhibitions, fluidity serves as a continuum across different social and geographical contexts. Whether on the murky underbed of the ocean or in the pitch black of a narrowboat-turned-darkroom, Clements and Morrison prompt us momentarily to step outside of time and consider how we might experience life beyond the frenetic pace of contemporary society.

I met with both artists to discuss the overlaps in their work.

Jamila Prowse: Have you noticed echoes between your practices through sharing the same exhibition space?

Harun Morrison: I think of it as a happy accident. I was touched by the work you developed, Leah, [Sick Bed, 2018] during the SPACE Art + Tech residency we both did in 2017. Once you put on the headset, find yourself bedbound in VR, defying the more commercial expectations of the medium. Although neither of our installations at Eastside Projects explicitly uses digital technology, we both explore the virtual through refusal. These are spaces that lead you into other spaces, creating a kind of teleportation effect.

Leah Clements: One of the significant things for both of us about our shows being postponed is that they are now taking place in the summer. I was thinking there’s this additional, unanticipated element being written into the works: the desire to get into the pool as visitors pass from one exhibition to the other and back out again.

leah clements the siren of the deep
Leah Clements, The Siren of the Deep, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham

HM: Yeah, because water is actually installed in your exhibition, whereas it’s alluded to in mine: the boat [Zoar Returns: Narrow Boat Simulator, 2021] is supported by water; the photographs [Boat as Camera, 2020–ongoing] are developed in various fluids and rinsed by water. Our shows are connected by the alternate presence and absence of water. I was struck, entering Leah’s space, by the smell of chlorine from the pool, like a Saturday swimming lesson. It’s similar to the wine glasses in my show [Eagle & Tun, 2021]: first, you are struck by the visual; then, as you hear the audio piece and approach the glasses to listen more closely, you might also smell the wine.

LC: My central sculptural work [The Siren of the Deep, 2021] has the dilapidated aesthetic of an abandoned medical experiment. I can see a parallel to Eagle & Tun there too, in as much as those glasses were discarded when the pub closed and you reclaimed them. Both of us, in that sense, are using the aesthetic language of the relic. A water glass was also one of the starting points for my show. It’s just an Ikea glass in the corner of the space, but I thought the way the light came through it was beautiful. In both of our exhibitions, you can see the activation of objects that are banal in themselves but reaching for a higher state. In my work, that activation happens quite suddenly in the moment the lights come on, whereas in your work it’s a more continuous process of unfolding and re-investigating.

harun morrison eagle and tun
Harun Morrison, Eagle & Tun, 2021, various salvaged objects (dartboard, cabinet, noticeboard, wine glasses) and audio (3 min 18 sec). Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

HM: I also think certain meanings in our works are now contingent on the pandemic. The objects from Eagle & Tun, for instance, are arranged to evoke an absent pub, with an unused dartboard and stacked chairs, in a scene calling for interaction. It’s the same with The Siren of the Deep, which evokes drained pools and closed lidos. Associations sneak in like that, relative to what’s happening in the world-at-large at any given point.

JP: Both of your shows seem to be exploding linear time. Was temporality something you were actively seeking to challenge?

LC: I wanted to situate my work outside of physicality and reality, as well as time. The entire installation operates on a 15-minute loop, so one way to perceive the show is as a coming-up followed by a come-down. You can stay and watch it as many times as you like, or you can leave on a high or a low – or somewhere in between.

harun morrison boat as camera
Harun Morrison, Boat as Camera, 2021–ongoing, foam-board screen, photographs, and

Studio at Night, 2021, video (2 min 10 sec). Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

HM: A play with temporality is inseparable from a play with space. By turning the boat into a camera, as well as a darkroom, I was looking to record its progression along the Grand Union Canal as I made my way from London to Birmingham. At the same time, any photograph is a form of return because it takes you back to the moment the image was captured. But, in this case, because the images were developed on the boat itself, the image is also taking you back to the site of production. Since the boat became a darkroom, I am now working in close proximity to a technician in the dark, so chatting in the dark becomes another way in which you’re taken out of time, or at least begin to think differently about it.

'Leah Clements: The Siren of the Deep' and 'Harun Morrison: Experiments with Everyday Objects’ are on view at Eastside Projects, Birmingham, until 31 July. 

Main image: Harun Morrison, Zoar Returns: Narrow Boat Simulator (Trailer), 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Eastside Projects, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher. She holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. Prowse has written for frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.

Harun Morrison is an artist and writer, based on the River Lea and Regent's Canal, UK. His forthcoming novel, The Escape Artist, will be published by Book Works in 2022. He is currently an artist in residence at London's Delfina Foundation and Horniman Museum and a trustee of the Black Cultural Archive. 

Leah Clements is an artist and writer, based in London, UK. In 2019, she collaborated with Lizzy Rose and Alice Hattrick on Access Docs for Artists, an online resource to help disabled artists communicate their access needs with galleries, art organisations and other employers. She is currently an artist in residence at Serpentine Galleries, London.