Art is one of the few areas where people have the opportunity to contemplate a provocative rhetoric before having to cast a decision on what it is. The creative arena allows us the viewers, as well as the artists, freedom to explore ideas with an experimental eye. In the current climate of contemporary art we find ourselves in a joyously confusing zone between high art and what is known as underground or low brow which makes differentiating what’s what even more vexing. But knee jerk reactions are anyone’s choice; More often than not, that educated guess that validates your acumen to interpret pop-cultural image codes inadvertently exposes your own insular perceptions and only partially examined ideals. So instead, what if you were to let an idea just hang there for a minute before coming down on one side or the other? Don’t be so eager to end the conversation.
To compare and contrast cute with confrontational is a typical and all too simple response when observing one of Harma Heikens’ near life-size sculptures for the first time. True, they are confrontational but the larger than life charm of Harma’s arrangements are powerfully thought-provoking allegories; Her description of her work is precise and understated. “I’m not into telling people that they see things the ‘wrong’ way,” says the Netherland artist. “When I make a sculpture of, say, a Latin-American or Asian looking child in horrible circumstances it is perceived as social criticism, but when I make a sculpture of a white child in a similar situation it is perceived as apocalyptic. That doesn’t feel good and it is confrontational in itself (for whoever wants to see it), but there’s no way of avoiding it. The images I work with sort of pre-exist in people’s minds. It works the same way for me.”
And therein lies one of the most appealing aspects of Heikens’ work. It’s not a soapbox stance, but she doesn’t resort to ’leaving it all up to the viewer’ either. What we make of it is an amalgamation of artist intention and our own built-in perceptions culled from our own reference banks.
Accessorized with familiar common-place objects these sculptures speak to us using our own universal language: a trash bag, a soda can, a sweater emblazoned with branded apparel. Even their cuteness is part of that language. It coaxes an examination of the debasement of our culture, our societies, our place in time, how far we’ve come – or regressed.
Harma’s use of the doll-like figure playfully scrambles the usual bromidic representations of childhood innocence lost; the once incorruptible Big Eyed, slightly sexualized, and very vulnerable child (popularized by the Keane’s) is now sullied by its overuse in entertainment and advertising. Here Harma turns the advertising game’s most seductive tool back on itself as in ‘Kill ‘m All’ or ‘For Free’ where Hummel-like figures sport dirty Adidas wear.
‘Welcome to the Jungle’, goes far beyond its literal representations: a two-foot tall sculpture depicts a boy holding a little monkey. On his head he’s wearing a helmet emblazoned with the logo of an angry ape. “To me the boy, the monkey and the ape represent different aspects of the same person. The child is afraid himself. He fears what he is going to do to the innocent and helpless monkey that looks up in trust (with a hunch of suspicion). And he’s afraid of the ferocious ape that makes him do this. Eventually, in a very near future this kid will turn into that ape and obviously it’s not going to end well for the monkey. By killing the monkey the boy will be killing that aspect of himself.”
“It can be perceived as a metaphor for loss of innocence, or moral decay, or growing up in general, as it was intended, but at the same time it’s a real-life scene in Africa. This is the way children are turned into child-soldiers: they are being forced to kill animals, preferably pets, and when their resistance is broken the rest follows. The ape symbol is also something that is actually used by rebel militias. Mostly, the details in my work have meaning (text on a T-shirt or even instructions for washing that are visible in a collar), but it’s not necessary to pick up on all the details to appreciate the point. I like it when things come to you easily, seemingly casual.”
On the subject of the provocative and heartbreaking ‘Statue of Liberty’ sculpture, Harma explains, “That is the only one I didn’t make up at all! I saw it on T.V. just like it turned out, filmed with a hidden camera in a ‘club’ full of girls from age 10 or so, in Thailand. I was quite shaken by it. You heard about such places, but to actually have a look inside… All I added is the half-eaten hamburger in the ashtray (inscribed with the text ‘Have A Nice Day’). The hamburger represents the girl’s situation; human garbage, soon to be dumped half-eaten. The title ‘Statue of Liberty’ is pretty obvious, I think: If freedom is reduced to the liberty to consume whatever you can afford, this may well be what it looks like. In general I make an effort to avoid being this explicit about my personal opinion; the intentions of the maker are not that important, no need to prove that they are good. But in this case, because it was so literally taken from real life, I couldn’t just leave it at that.”
Confronting and dismissing this piece on impulse protects your sense of moral decency. But it also dismisses the true commentary of the artist thereby effectively turning away from the target issue here – child prostitution. With a bit of patience and some confidence (no, your morals will not be defiled if you look longer) it becomes clear the work is calling attention to the situation, not condoning it.
Meaty as these subjects are, the fun of creating isn’t lost on Harma. “I’m of course just as influenced by current artists, cartoonists and filmmakers as any other artist. And despite all the indignation that motivated the work initially, once at work, my main concerns are pretty formal and technical. You can’t stay upset the whole time. One piece takes several months to make so it would be rather inconvenient. Of course I enjoy working on it, in a malicious kind of way, even.”
“Why I choose this particular, seemingly innocent and popular form, I’m not quite sure.
Sometimes I think it’s to show how treacherous and manipulative an image can be; that even the most objectionable ideas can be sold once they are handsomely wrapped. Other times I think that I just like the 50s to 70s dolls and kitschy figurines so much that I’m on an absurd mission to try and prove that literally anything can be expressed in that form.”
I think we are in an art renaissance, it’s “popular” so to speak, in a way that it wasn’t in recent decades. In my line of work I see a lot and impressed by so much. But for an artist to rise above the noise is no easy feat. Too often artists will have to balance trying to appeal to an audience vs. keeping true to the work. I understand. Harma Heikens does not pull any punches or shy away from what she wants to say or how she chooses to say it. That is a risk and with artists like this, the world will never be boring.