Meditation and Communion: Charles Harlan's Fountain at Freehouse

Friday 23rd April, 2021

Review by Jamie Johnson. Photographs by Damian Griffiths, courtesy of Freehouse.

What does it mean to make the most of what you’ve got? In Charles Harlan’s case, it looks to touch upon conveying “art experiences with non-art objects”. In this latest solo show of his, simply entitled Fountain (and, in turn, describing the nature of said non-art object), it would do a disservice to his craftsmanship and his intensely thorough planning to say that the title summarises what you’ll find. Harlan describes the notion of a fountain as “a symbol of our social lives … we long for our collective gathering places”; it’s apt, then, that the aforementioned artwork is situated in the centre of the gallery space, with enough space for a small crowd (of no more than 6, of course…) to congregate around and to breathe in a shared experience, common to all.

Of course, this is no common-or-garden water feature. Every element of this artwork is tailored and refined to suit Harlan’s most specific specifications. Currently based in North Carolina, travel restrictions had meant that the artist could not fly over and set up the artwork himself; rather, all of the individual elements that comprise the artwork – the sandbags, the tarpaulin, the barrel-cum-water-basin, you name it — were shipped internationally, the piece then being re-assembled using a wonderfully specific set of illustrated instructions from the artist. It’s a remarkable feat considering how the work consumes the space that it exists within. Its rustic, handcrafted aesthetic slightly jars with the now-traditional, clinical glare of the white cube, but rather than detracting from the centrepiece, it actually manages to allow the fountain room to breathe without distraction.

Having spent a decent amount of time in the space whilst visiting, I came to note the artwork’s meditative nature. The water that runs through the work flows from the centre of the antenna dish perched atop the fountain’s bulbous structure, passing through a half-barrel great metal vat and out into a tarpaulin-lined pool, reinforced with sandbags. The metallic tinkling of the water’s stream, as it departs the antenna and flows into the barrel below, is incredibly soothing. This, paired with the halo-esque glow of the antenna reflecting the studio lights above, creates a calming, yet moving, experience for the observer.

Water, or the suggested or implied presence of water, has been explored previously in Harlan’s work. His previous artwork Birdbath (2017) was debuted at Frieze New York and consisted of an empty, baby blue baptism pool, dragged down by a dense stone birdbath, ensuring that the pool sat on the precipice of the unknown and unprecedented. Here, the inclusion of water was only ever suggested, but if the pool in question were to be filled, nobody would have left Frieze with dry shoes. They would have unknowingly joined in communion, an unwitting creation of a community. By observing Harlan’s latest work in place at Freehouse, the pretences of propaganda and technological elaboration are stripped from the humble water fountain, as it becomes once more a place to congregate and gather – COVID notwithstanding.

Fountain is on show at Freehouse, London, until 15th May