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The Atlantic Project: Excavating Plymouth’s Failed Utopias

The pilot biennial plots the English naval city’s place in an increasingly globalized age

In the centre of Plymouth’s austere civic piazza, skateboarders ride over a large, grey rock. A date, 1620, is raised on its side. The rock is a 3D-scanned, concrete copy of the Plymouth Rock located in Massachusetts, USA – a memorial posited as being the first object that the Pilgrims set foot on after journeying from Plymouth, UK, to the so-called ‘New World’. Plymouth Rock is a somewhat underwhelming memorial. Its absence in literature earlier than the 1800s indicates that it may not be a rock of any significance at all, and souvenir-hunters and multiple attempts to relocate it have fractured it, rendering the monument just a fraction of its original size. Back in Plymouth, UK, Danish artist Tommy Støckel’s replica, New Plymouth Rock (2018), is supplemented by an app that allows users to simulate the rock’s continued, future erosion. By tapping and shaking the screen, virtual slithers scatter and the rock falls apart. 

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Ryoji Ikeda, The Radar, 2012, The Atlantic Project, Plymouth, 2018. Courtesy: Dom Moore

The multi-media piece is part of a pilot edition for a new biennial in the south-west of England, The Atlantic Project. Led by curator Tom Trevor, the biennial sprawls across 14 sites in Plymouth’s city centre, welcoming 20 artists and collectives from 12 countries until 21 October. The roster includes some big international names, from Hito Steyerl to SUPERFLEX. But the project’s internationalism runs beyond a desire to fit into the cosmopolitan art festival circuit – it recognizes a highly problematic past of global exchange and interrogates Plymouth’s relevance in an increasingly globalized world. With the by-line ‘After The Future’, the project takes utopian imaginaries as a broad theme. As the date on Støckel’s sculpture won’t let us forget, Plymouth’s maritime past is fraught – with its open access to the Atlantic, the town became associated with maritime exploration, colonialism and the slave trade. In more recent history, the city was extensively bombed during the Plymouth Blitz of the Second World War, and rebuilt with post-war, utopian visions in mind.

Next to the piazza, in the basement of Plymouth’s Civic Centre, Kiluanji Kia Henda’s film Concrete Affection – Zopo Lady (2014) is on view. Static, wide shots frame the cityscape of Kia Henda’s hometown of Luanda, Angola. Besides an off-screen male narrator speaking in Portuguese, we are afforded no human subjects. We accompany the disembodied voice as he ventures past ‘huge concrete sculptures’, empty streets lined with Modernist buildings and architectural skeletons once destined to become skyscrapers. The work takes inspiration from the book Another Day of Life – Angola 1975, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 1976 account of the country’s last months of colonial rule, the exodus of Portuguese colonists and subsequent influx of Angolans from rural areas. It marked a crucial moment of transition for the country.

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Donald Rodney, Psalms, 1997, The Atlantic Project, Plymouth, 2018. Courtesy: Dom Moore

One of The Atlantic Project’s greatest successes is the contextualization of its artworks within thoughtfully selected public spaces. The monolithic, 14-storey Civic Centre was designed as part of Patrick Abercrombie’s grand, post-war plans to rebuild Plymouth. But in the last few decades, the building became too expensive for the city council to run, and has lain empty for years. Kia Henda’s film echoes the Modernist architecture of the Civic Centre, as well as the desolation of Plymouth’s disused buildings. The parallels drawn between Plymouth and Luanda signify a shared history – although one was once the invader and the other the invaded, these cities both find themselves in the wake of an indelible colonial past.

Across from the Civic Centre, Liu Chuang’s performative piece Buying Everything On You (2006–present) occupies a corner of the 5th floor of House of Fraser, originally Dingles department store. A film documents Chuang’s attempts to buy individuals’s entire possessions in a labour market in Shenzhen, China. Displayed on low plinths are the resulting purchases, intimate details that comprise a person’s life – handbags, underwear, credit cards, paperwork, photographs. Again, the work takes on a fresh significance when recontextualized within the floundering British department store. (House of Fraser fell into administration this summer, and was then bought by Sports Direct.) Globalization’s all-pervading influence, and economic disappointments, are laid bare.

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The Atlantic Project, installation view, 2018, Plymouth. Courtesy: Dom Moore

The Millennium Building on Union Street is the project’s highlight. Once a decadent cinema, then reinvented as The Warehouse nightclub in the 1980s, the building has been abandoned since 2004. On the ground floor, Plymouth-based artist Carl Slater’s video-works appropriate archival footage to reimagine the euphoria of 1990s club culture. Inhabiting the club’s vast dancehall upstairs is an immersive installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, who creates audio-visual work from sound in raw states, electronic media, and digital data. In The Radar (2012), monochromatic coordinates and celestial shapes glide across the wall, and an orchestral, meditative soundscape charges the room. As a marine radar repeatedly expands across the screen, emitting a recurring, lonely bleep, Ikeda’s work recalls a history of maritime voyages. ‘The city’s strapline used to be ‘Spirit of Discovery’, which then went on to become ‘Spirit of Disco,’’ Trevor tells me. The Radar is only more affecting for the occasional silhouettes that drift by, serving as ghostly reminders of the building’s past life, bygone anticipations of a future yet to come.

Main image: The Atlantic Project, installation view, 2018, Plymouth. Courtesy: Dom Moore

Sophie Ruigrok is a writer based in London.

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