Kevin Harman: "There’s the riot gear and the absinthe"

We catch up with Edinburgh's most controversial artist Kevin Harman in advance of his huge early career retrospective at Edinburgh's Leith Docks

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 22 Feb 2017

Kevin Harman. You might remember him from such artworks as shitting on a pigeon, smashing the Collective gallery window for his Masters degree show (followed by a brief incarceration and legal proceedings), and latterly a Fruitmeerkat Gallery website, a ribbing clone of the Fruitmarket Gallery site. If not, there will be plenty to acquaint yourself with come 17 March at Edinburgh's Leith Docks

Fruitmeerkat is a useful entry point for the upcoming Ltd Ink Corporation. Speaking broadly about the intention and attitude of the show, Harman says “Every aspect of the show pivots between the real and unreal, true and untrue. It could be an object or online, but will be mixed with real hard evidence of criminal activity in the past. If they were small enough they would be taken for police evidence.”

Further complicating the layers of un/reality, he goes on: “We really got a Sex Pistols tribute band.” Realising the odd paradox there: “There’s the ideas of angry faith and hope, then absolutely slapping that out elsewhere and bringing you back to earth with a corporate rod. “ With this idea of ambivalent truth and falseness, construct and authenticity, Harman’s assistant Phoebe Mitchell brings up its paralleling with the present warrens of fake Facebook news and doublespeak. It’s “utter confusion, an echo chamber, how do you break free from messages being fed from your peer group or higher beings?”

So it is he came up with the strategy of some of the works included in the upcoming exhibitions: “You show it quite obviously that what you’re doing is a commentary on things you’ve fallen for or been duped by. You put it out, its purpose is to show you the confusion that’s happening.”

He thinks in particular of Hope Less, a work that’s seen him go around the pawn shops picking up secondhand crucifixes and the receipt that comes with the cross. In reclaimed oak, he laser etches these receipts, then from the top there’s a little copper gallows, and the crosses hang from golden thread, taken from Ministers’ gowns.

“It’s an object that’s associated with a bit of faith,” Harman describes the crosses in the work. “What stage does it get to before you hand these in?  Maybe they’ve been stolen, but the fact is they’re there to go in and acquire and display.” It’s a general theme of the exhibition: “So many aspects come from worship and iconography.”

As well as Hope Less, then, there’s a confession booth titled, short for 'collective being.' “It’s made by vulnerable adults at Grassmarket Projects. I gave them the design and  wood from Church of Scotland. It’s a safe place to release secrets and confession. They’re taken into an online universe and become a star in a galaxy.” Harman’s referring to the user interface that is based on a virtual night sky, through which users can navigate and listen to confessions.

“That’ll be something that keeps going, hopefully gets taken around the world gathering different conversations.” As travelling box for broadcasting secrets, there’s an imbricating of channels of social media and old school spaces of privacy and revelation.

One of the most noteworthy collaborations of the exhibition comes with the relationship Harman has built with a homeless man, Stevie. “It’s an installation for over 200 of his signs.” One reads “Can you spare some change for a B+B tonight? It is £20 a night for it. Can you please help me? Thanks for your help, take care and God bless.”

“They’re works of art, beautiful things”, he says, speaking of Stevie’s richly patterned and careful felt-tip drawn signs. “They’re mounted on the back of old letting signs to keep them straight and they’re displayed like a demonstration. All those 200 signs face out in a semi circle of a stage [and around] a four poster bed clad in velvet,” printed with the signs. “We’ve got  curtains made, bedsheets and a 10 by 8 foot rug of one of his signs.”

Also in the gigantic hangar space, Harman’s visiting a past idea of a restaurant he previously ran: a steak and absinthe bar at the Edinburgh Art Fair 2014. It’s an early career retrospective, as Harman’s assistant Phoebe Mitchell describes, and he’s not shying away from bringing threads together, “going back to older works then reimagining, not as finished or closed projects.” In the exhibition, there’ll be a colossal version with a very different endpoint of some previous projects.

“There’s the bar from 2014 that was in [Harman’s] studio that’s been reincarnated and stripped back. There’s a lot of revelation in it, hedonism meets mixing ideas, germinating, letting loose, the idea of an underground bar, not legitimate. It’s reaching out to carnal desire: feed, physical contact, interact. At the same time, it’s funding art.”

“I’m exposing the transaction and the inner workings.” Harman has been working with Mitchell to decide what’s in the bar, “Everything is thought out. It’s not just a bar for the hell of it, it’s the best it can be. We’re looking at the mark up of a wine, something that you can get for three pounds that’s sold for 20.” They think of “the creative endeavour” involved in “setting up a bar or a company. How much work is going on in just pouring a pint. Everything is done on a margin.”

Speaking of the huge scale of the different elements, he’s chosen only a select few to discuss: “It’s all getting built right now. It really is the launch of a range of different facets,” including a new project space down the road from the exhibition. “The show’s going to Hull a few months after the launch.”

Harman speaks as well about the “freedom of the show, it’s not governed by curators or a gallery. I’m thinking about getting drones in as an added element of surveillance.” Mitchell describes the opening night as “live immersive theatre.” She mentions that Harman will be there, but wonders about his role, if he’s “playing” himself or if he’s part of it all.

“There’s a darkness to the show,” Harman adds. That’s to say, as well as a Steak and Absinthe Bar, there’s a locker room filled with riot gear. He thinks of the post-apocalyptic cannibalistic dystopia The Road in relation to contemporary politics: “There’s the feeling that something’s dying, that’s bigger than us. Somehow the hope that you can try to hold on to seems really futile.

“I see the riot gear as something I’ll need in the not too distant future. Maybe it’s paranoia, but the things I’ve thought were gonna happen [reading the news over the last few years] are all sort of happening.” There’s a humour aspect, but it’s very close to the bone. These things could happen and there could be a breakdown of what pins everything together. There’s the riot gear and the absinthe. Let yourself go.” Following his own recent ideas and projections: “I’ll need a suit of armour. There’s a funny five years to come.”

Kevin Harman, Ltd Ink Corporation, Preview 17 March 6-9pm, 31 Bath Road, Leith Docks, 18-20 March, Sat-Mon 11am-7pm