Museums at Night October 2015: Luke Jerram on clocks and testing something new in Honiton

By Ben Miller | 22 October 2015

Visitors to Devon’s Thelma Hulbert Gallery will be watching the clocks for the right reasons this Museums at Night in a garden of timepieces donated by the public and carefully curated by artist Luke Jerram

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
On the weekend when time looms large, Luke Jerram's installation for Museums at Night celebrates the life of the master timekeeper John Harrison© Helen Lisk Photography
When John Harrison invented the game-changing marine chronometer in the mid-18th century, he might not have imagined the ubiquity of clocks during the centuries that followed, nor the place among Britain’s greats his breakthrough would bring him.

Almost 300 years after Harrison heroically ensured safe long-distance seafaring through an accurate measurement of longtitude, ticking timepieces both define and are taken for granted in the way they quietly dominate our days.

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
The Thelma Hulbert Gallery are running five days of events with Jerram© Helen Lisk Photography
In Luke Jerram’s new installation, a garden named after Harrison and designed as an “imagined inner landscape”, 1,000 of them have been aligned into pathways and borders, ticking, sounding and moving in an island of dependable yet highly differing mechanisms donated by the public.

“I wasn’t sure we would get that many, but the gallery seemed confident,” reveals Jerram, whose connection with the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, a place with a commitment to open-mindedness which chimes with his own philosophies, came about through a public vote linking artists with galleries.

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
The Honiton gallery won the event by just six votes in the Connect! competition© Helen Lisk Photography
“A child, a scientist, a historian or a mathematician might all get different things out of it – it’s creating multiple doors of entry to a concept that can be quite complicated. It’s nice as a way of rallying the community with a call to action, and it’s a nice way of getting lots of people involved.”

“Quite complicated” is an understatement when exploring the history of automata. Jerram has been partly inspired by the discoveries of Simon Schaffer, a Cambridge history and philosophy of science professor whose journeys to the origins of mechanical clocks, from the corruption of power in medieval Europe to the sharing of myriad skills in clockmakers’ shops, demonstrate the complexities of a technological timeline touching on multiple scientific spheres.

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
Many of the clocks have been donated by the public, each carrying their own story and significance© Helen Lisk Photography
Fortunately, Jerram is talented at encompassing a broad audience through his playful sculptures, installations and live art. He often does it in high-profile style: in Bristol, his one-day Park and Slide saw 65,000 people watch a lucky few hundred course along an entirely new piece of architecture.

Sky Orchestra, meanwhile, plays music developed for people sleeping out of hot air balloons, rising to a chorus above the 2012 Olympics build-up, Derry’s UK City of Culture and beyond.

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
Jerram hopes to tour the installation© Luke Jerram
“With some of the projects we’ve created we’ve been literally delivering an artwork to someone’s doorstep,” he says. “There are two main spaces at the gallery, and I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to do it yet. We seem to have collected quite a collection of a couple of hundred carriage clocks. Some of them are anniversary clocks or clocks collected by people when they’ve retired, so they’re wound once a year.

“There are wall clocks, travel clocks and digital clocks. The history of these clocks and time measurement is so interesting – I feel like I could easily spend another year researching it. But what I want to do is point people in a particular direction and say, ‘here’s where you can read or find out more’.”

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
Many of the clocks seem to have had their function in part replaced by clocks on our mobile phones and computers© Luke Jerram
Jerram is used to his work travelling, particularly with the irresistible Play Me I’m Yours, which has installed more than 1,400 pianos in 49 cities, inviting their finders to tinker. Thelma Hulbert’s Honiton home is closer to his own studio in Bristol, allowing easy planning meetings and a “very informal” organisation of his Museums at Night piece.

“It’s a chance to try something new, to test it, to document it,” he says. “Time affects the way we work in society, and I hope we can tour this collection we’ve built, because the places it goes to will allow it to be read in slightly different ways.

A photo of artist Luke Jerram crouching among lots of clocks at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery
More than 200 events are taking place for the festival this weekend© Luke Jerram
“We did one exhibition at Canterbury Cathedral, for example, and if we took them there – a place where time has often been controlled and dictated – it would seem very different to how it might feel in, say, Royal Museums Greenwich or an old working mill from the 19th century.” Beginning for a week in East Devon, this idea populated by the public is one which will grow with time.

  • Harrison's Garden installation - Luke Jerram is at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery from October 27-31 2015. Museums at Night runs October 30-31 2015. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk to find events near you.

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