Does breaking a window count as art? Yes, murmured the 50 or so artniks who recently crowded into a former Edinburgh ambulance garage to view a film of sculptor Kevin Harman doing just that. No, insisted Kate Gray, director of the Collective Gallery in Cockburn Street, whose window it was.
The courts are on Gray's side. Yesterday Harman, a prize-winning graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, was fined £200 for breaching the peace on 23 November, when he smashed a metal scaffolding pole through one of the gallery's windows. Fiscal depute Malcolm Stewart described the affair as "a rather bizarre incident" which had left Collective staff "upset."
As Harman, 27, had already paid £350 to have the window instantly replaced, his artistic intervention has proved pricey. The Collective's decision to prosecute was promptly condemned by Harman's supporters.
"They should have shaken his hand and bought him a drink," declared Royal Academician Michael Sandle. Edinburgh art guru Richard Demarco, whose foundation recently awarded Harman a £2,000 scholarship, described the gallery's action as "intensely regrettable", and the artist as "a serious, hard-working and gifted person".
Gray was unavailable for comment, as was the Edinburgh College of Art, where Harman is in the second year of a master's course. It is understood that several of his tutors had been supportive of the project, which was initially labelled Brick. The scaffolding pole was substituted as a safer option.
The student, who has a piece in the current show of the Royal Scottish Academy, explained that he was less distressed by the fine than by the Collective's dismissal of his work as "vandalism", as the charge sheet put it. "There have got to be serious questions asked of their position as arbiters of art," he told the Guardian.
It was explained during the 15-minute hearing that Harman had forewarned the Collective of his intentions, twice by letter and once in person, but had declined to reveal when he would strike. "He thought the gallery were in something of a quandary about what to do," defence lawyer Mathew Patrick told Sheriff Roderick MacLeod. "He certainly wouldn't have gone ahead if he had known the police would be called."
The idea of reconfiguring existing structures has long interested artists. In 1978, German sculptor Bogomir Ecker sawed 8cm off the Eiffel Tower. During the same decade, the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark carved up (usually) condemned houses in New York and Paris. More recently, Richard Wilson has successfully distorted building facades. Art galleries have been contaminated with mud (Antony Gormley) and suitcases of putrefying cheese (Dieter Roth) – admittedly after permission was sought.
"There has obviously been a profound level of misunderstanding of the raison d'être of Kevin's work," Demarco said. "The word destruction does not apply to him. His whole ethos is about making things which are negative into things that are positive."
The wider world will soon be able to judge for themselves. The film of Harman's action has been made available, while an installation featuring the shattered window and court documents, will be unveiled in spring.
Before all that, Harman has more pressing matters to attend to: the case has left him running late with one of his essays.
Richard DeMarco sounds like a super-cool guy :D