Kevin Harman: Bricking It

Edinburgh's answer to the enfant terrible, <strong>Kevin Harman</strong> has a solo show in the Old Ambulance Depot this month, drawing together works old and new for a first, early career retrospective. The Skinny meets him for a pint to find out what's behind all the controversy

Feature by Rosamund West | 01 Mar 2011

“With my work I become a sort of tool. It’s not that I enjoy doing this thing, that I want to do this thing. I sever my emotional attachment, sever it being about me. It’s about everything all around. I, this shell, do this thing. It’s like being in a trance. And then I wake up and look at what I’ve done, and that’s when you have the discussion. And that’s what you’ll see in this show.”

In his short career, Kevin Harman has established a bit of a reputation for himself as a Controversial Artist. Looking at a brief summary of his more noteworthy works (from a long list – he's fairly prolific) it’s easy to see how he got this label. He first gained notoriety rearranging skips, he’s smashed the Collective gallery window, deconstructed hotel rooms, stolen the doormats of Bruntsfield; he’s defecated on a pigeon, smashed a snail on film, and played complex power games with framers and t-shirt printers in his Do Your Job series. It would be very foolish to dismiss him as someone chasing the shock value, however. A closer look at the works and the ideas behind them reveals an artist who is dealing with themes that resonate far beyond the art world, who is keen to challenge us, for whom the concept is king.

His work has manifested itself in a multiplicity of media: video, photography, installation, painting, assemblage, sculpture. “To communicate the idea through my own preference of material wouldn’t be fair. I need to use whatever material that idea needs to be realised.” A common theme is utilising found objects, materials that are universally familiar. “Even though I don’t use image, you know what you’re looking at. There’s an invitation into the work by you knowing what you’re looking at. And that begins a relationship. Most of the time that relationship is a question, a reflexive question on yourself. I don’t have any answers.”

The works frequently display a discomfort with the conventions of the art world, signalling someone railing against being institutionalised, seeking to break down the real and psychological walls of Art and bring it back to reality. But, “I love the art world. What I’m trying to do is take certain elements of it and try to liberate it a wee bit, to introduce various questions, and various divides, and see what people think of it.”

His skip project saw him reposition the contents of various rubbish containers around Edinburgh, working overnight to systematically remove then replace the contents in a more aesthetically pleasing manner. “With the skips, I was going out and trying to develop a sort of global space that didn’t need to exist within the institution. I could go out and have an audience.”

Sometimes he’d choose a skip beside a pub so he could get people to meet him for an informal viewing once it was done. Sometimes he’d just hang around and watch the builders’ reactions when they got to work on the Monday and found their bin rearranged into geometric shapes. For this latest exhibition he’s secured sponsorship from a skip company who will be delivering some raw materials to the exhibition site. Perhaps his most controversial work to date (well, apart crapping on a pigeon) involved him putting a scaffolding pole through the Collective gallery’s window in 2009. He’d warned the gallery he was going to do it, although he hadn’t told them when, and he had a glazer on hand to replace the glass instantly. His letters had stated that the gallery had been chosen as his partner in his latest work, Brick, therefore trailing the act very clearly with a statement that he regarded this as art. Collective called the police, and he was arrested, charged £200 on top of the £350 he’d paid the glazer and swiftly released.

“I knew it was going to cause a furore, and it did. I had letters from the college saying I couldn’t take it in, that it came from the top. This is my Master’s show piece. The powers that be were worried about their reputation with the satellite galleries around the college. I got this letter saying I couldn’t exhibit it.”

So he exhibited it. The degree show consisted of the video of the smashing, the original broken window, and various letters from Harman, Collective, ECA relating to the incident, framed and hanging on the wall. It caused a lot of debate. Was it art? The abiding impression was shock at the unwillingness of those involved to engage in the debate. The Collective had been chosen because they specifically state on their website 'We aim to foster, support and debate new work and practices.' When Harman tried to physically pose a question as to what constitutes art he ended up in the cells.

An earlier work that proved no less controversial was a slideshow of Harman revenge shitting on a pigeon. “We looked up the legalities of it and you’re not allowed to show a moving image of any animal in distress. But it didn’t say anything about slide images. As long as it was less than a certain number of frames per second it was classed as photography.” What at first seems to be a one-liner act of cruel art controversy turns out on closer inspection to be quite a serious challenge to our sense of propriety when it comes to animal welfare.

“It’s a ridiculous piece of work in a sense that people go “How could you do that?” and I just look around and I think 'Are you for real?' It’s a joke. How could I shit on a pigeon? How can you just go to Tesco’s and buy a ham sandwich? It’s a reflexive nonsense.”

Another piece that at first seems deliberately cruel also reveals a more fundamental rationale. Demolition is a video of a snail being smashed with a hammer, played in reverse. “It was another question. What constitutes an animal, legally? If I was to do that to a pigeon I’d be locked up, but a snail I can show it. The guy from animal rights was like ‘Yeah, you’re lucky it was a mollusc 'cos otherwise there'd be trouble.’ Snails get fed pellets every day. Mass killings. And I’m just taking this one snail and giving it legendary status. It’s like, there you go, one snail. And I feel really bad about doing it, but it’s to highlight other stuff. And I feel it’s important to do this.

“This little creature, he can reproduce by himself, and he’s got a house on his back. This amazing little thing, and yet they can be wiped out. They’re not considered to be under any protection or anything. My gesture for doing it, and then reversing the video was my way of saying sorry.”

Now we’ve cleared up that controversy, Harman’s also got some new work to show. The Do Your Job series will have many forms, but seems to boil down to paying people to create things (frames, printed t-shirts etc) that abuse themselves. For example a t-shirt printer is paid to print a t-shirt that says ‘People who print t-shirts are idiots’. “I think it is quite relevant in some way. In the way that people feel doing a job that they don’t want to do but they have to.”

Another work will see Harman going on a more poetic bent, with a single padlock fitted to the glass of the gallery window. “It’s a tying in of two spaces, securing one side to the other through a sort of portal. I was looking at a window, thinking, when do you look at a clear window?”

There’s much more besides. Just don’t think any of it’s meant to be funny. “When I make my work I don’t mean for it to be humorous. There’s room for humour in art, but my motivations don’t lie there.“

Old Ambulance Depot, 5-14 Mar, 10am-6pm, Free