Interview by THE ART OF BANKSY
Harma Heikens: “Generally speaking, art bears tests people’s boundaries and what they consider to be ‘socially acceptable’. It has a different logic, speaks a different language and eventually that’s what makes it so valuable to society. Art gives us the opportunity to neutralise contradictions. There are certain things that can be beautiful and hideous at the same time.”
In August 2015 the Dutch festival Noorderzon in Groningen decided to remove Harma Heikens’ controversial art installation Toys in the Attic. They did so after two visitors of the festival threatened to set it on fire. Soon after, many considered Noorderzon’s move to be an act of art censorship. Whether you like Heikens’ installation or not – after all it is a portrayal of a paedophile clown seducing an innocent little girl with her undies around her ankles – the main question at stake here is if society is entitled to decide what artists can or cannot do? The Art of Banksy caught up with Heikens to talk about her ‘forbidden art’ and how art is supposed to function in a democracy.
THE ART OF BANKSY: Does it annoy you when people don’t understand the true meaning of art?
Harma Heikens: “Not necessarily, if you don’t get what an artist is trying to say, then fair enough. Often, the people that are new to exhibitions or art shows, are also the ones that have difficulty appreciating the message artists are trying to get across. These people are convinced that artists should create art solely for their entertainment. If they dislike or even hate the artwork, they will share their opinion in a very direct and aggressive way. I think everyone should be aloud to create whatever art they want, as long as they abide the law.”
THE ART OF BANKSY: So you see no social restrictions when it comes to art?
HH:“The art I make is provocative to say the least, but I think every artist’s goal is to test the boundaries of what society’s considers to be socially acceptable. In order to so, you’re bound to cross the line of a few individuals. I think it’s all about taking responsibility as an artist. But you need to keep in mind that what you say or do has an impact. Just because I feel that no woman should be harassed, even when she was riding on the train bare naked, doesn’t automatically mean it’s advisable. Every human being decides where he or she draws the line. The only thing artists do, and should do, is conjure up a dialogue between people.”
THE ART OF BANKSY: Your work got banned from Noorderzon. Did you expect your work to have that amount of an impact on others?
HH:“Back then I didn’t, no. I didn’t have the faintest idea Noorderzon was getting trouble from visitors that didn’t appreciate my work. I guess Noorderzon just didn’t want any commotion taking over the festival, so they just removed the installation. Our society is becoming more and more pampered and unnecessarily over-sensitive. Nowadays, people’s opinions are driven by commercial goals instead of moral ones. When you try to avert negative feedback in the art world this inherently means you’re downplaying the very role art plays in society. To me that’s an attack on artistic freedom. That’s why I think artists, like the ones painting graffiti, feel the need take over public spaces. It’s a solid reminder to everyone that no one owns the public space.”
THE ART OF BANKSY: What do you mean by that? Doesn’t that put street artists in the wrong as well, because they are violating the public space themselves?
“No, I think street art adds value to public space. Essentially, yes, they are breaking the law. But what about the advertisements at bus shelters? I surely didn’t ask for those? And just because advertisers pays to place their content, doesn’t mean I agreed. But will anyone listen to me if I file complaint? I don’t think so. There’s an overload of noise in the public space that’s being forced upon people. That’s why I’m pleased to see street artists like Banksy are taking over the public space and use it to discuss relevant themes that cannot be ignored.”
THE ART OF BANKSY: Banksy himself has become a bit of a commercial commodity. Does that automatically make Banksy less credible?
“Artists whose popularity has skyrocketed, often struggle with this question. In my experience, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more renown your work is, the more commercial pressure you’ll experience, and thus the harder it is for an artist to stay true to the message they initially tried to get across. I think Banksy is a bit of an exception. His work has never trailed his commercial success. But I guess you’ll have to ask me that question again after I’ve visited THE ART OF BANKSY, which of course is the commercial adoration of a once underground rebel.