Interview: Artist Conor Harrington Discusses How Hip-Hop and Fallen Empires Inspired His "Eat and Delete" Exhibition in New York

Conor Harrington installed a new exhibition in New York for a week, his first in the city.

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Image via Complex Original
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Entering Conor Harrington’s "Eat and Delete" show at the Old Gym on Mulberry Street in New York is kind of like walking into a 360-degree movie theater. It’s nearly pitch black, save the spotlight in the middle, and the massive paintings surrounding the room are each about the size of a movie screen, making one endless circle of art. The sheer scale is overwhelming enough, but then you settle in and realize he’s created hyperrealistic paintings of 19th-century aristocracy getting all kinds of freaky, and the next layer of shock and awe settles in.

Harrington was never going to create your typical white-walled gallery show. About 20 years ago, long before the Ireland-born, London-based artist was examining the excess of long dead aristocracy, he was throwing hip-hop nights in Ireland and tagging the streets as quickly as he could, in whatever spaces he could find. 

Those days are no longer. Eventually he moved into the world of murals, and now, he sees bigger as better. Harrington might have his very own gallery spaces, but he still can’t ignore those hip-hop ticks. Hip-hop raised Harrington, so to him, visuals of a power-hungry Napoleon are really just like a gluttonous Rick Ross draped in gold chains.  

The gallery show ends tomorrow (Saturday, October 4, 2014), so you might not get the full movie theater effect, but read below to see how Harrington got to "Eat and Delete."​

What was the hip-hop scene in Ireland like?

Ireland has always had a small, really tight-knit group of MCs and DJs. It’s a really small country; we’ve got about 4 million people, so the amount of people back in the '90s who were into hip-hop was quite small. Everybody clicked together. About 10 to 12 years ago, I got close with a group of DJs and MCs, and we used to put on hip-hop nights. We were all from different parts of the country, so we’d get together at the club. Obviously, now with the Internet, it’s a completely different story. It exposes everything to everybody.

How did you transition from graffiti to fine art?

It was a gradual thing. I don’t call myself a graffiti writer, and I don’t call myself a street artist. I don’t call myself a fine artist. I just call myself a painter and I still see myself as a painter on a journey. It’s been 20 years since I first tagged, so 20 years out, god knows what I’ll be doing. I always want to see how far I can push what I’m doing, so I keep pushing myself.


What’s the story behind "Eat and Delete"?

It’s a continuation of my work over the last four years. I’m interested in systems of power and excess, and that’s where the eat aspect comes from—the excess and unrelenting desire for power and control. The delete aspect comes from what happens after that unrelenting desire for control.

It’s a story of power and colonialism and empires that build up and fall. It’s about the rise of power and the fall of power. The eat is the excess, and the delete is the drop. I don’t remember the exact line, but it’s actually from a track on the Nas and Damian Marley collaboration album. Nas says, “Eat, sleep, delete,” or something like that. I was like “Ah! Ok.” So I took the eat and delete. It makes sense with the rises and falls I’m interested in.

The prequel to "Eat and Delete" was called "Dead Meat." Why the food obsession?

I suppose it’s just the hunger and the idea of hunger in general. You’re hungry for food or you’re hungry for power—it’s the same motion. The same kind of feeling. I’m looking at the powerful people and what they’re hungry for. They’re hungry for power, hungry for excess, hungry for everything. Eating is just that general sense of nonstop hunger, nonstop feeding themselves.

Do you set any limitations on what you eat?

No, I really enjoy my food. The only thing I don’t eat is mushrooms. The taste and the texture remind me of slugs.

Do you limit yourself in any other ways?

My paintings are really rich and decadent, but I’m not like that at all. My life is quite lowkey and humble, to a degree. I just paint and chill a lot. I’m not like my paintings, if that’s what you’re wondering. It’s just an interest. Somebody could say every painting is a self-portrait, but for me the painting is the opposite of me.

I’m not an overly masculine or egotistical kind of guy, but I’m interested in these guys. I grew up with graffiti and hip-hop, and that whole world is quite masculine and egotistical. It’s all about bragging, and it’s kind of similar to these European colonial powers. It might look like history, but it’s more about the present. When I started painting the kind of Napoleonic early 19th-century generals with big hats and chains and stuff, it was like painting Slick Rick with all his jewelry and bling. It’s all power dressing—dressing like a peacock. And for me, it all comes from hip-hop. Hip-hop’s about battling and competition, and the language of hip-hop is very militaristic. There are huge parallels between the two, even though they’re obviously hundreds of years apart.


Then why use images with such historical context?

The paintings look like historical paintings, but it’s not about that. There’s a painting in the show called The Unveiling, where there’s a girl lying on the table, and she’s being unveiled. There’s a guy unveiling her, and there’s a guy sitting on the chair watching. That painting is actually about downloaded porn. The girl is the object, unfortunately, and she’s being unveiled by a guy, just like I imagine a majority of people pulling the strings in the porn industry are men, and most of the consumers, like the guy sitting down, are men, as well. So although it looks like this kind of 18th century decadent painting, it’s actually about pornography and how we’re consuming it.

These paintings are huge, and you’ve also done some murals around New York City recently. What do you think about the impact of scale? Why create something so big?

On the street, the bigger the better; the bigger it is, the bigger the impact. Painting on the street is funny, because you’re putting something out into the public, but you’re not really asking the public’s permission. The wall could be a fully legal wall, but you don’t really have permission to paint there. I haven’t asked everybody in the neighborhood, “Are you ok if I do this?” I come to a country, paint a huge wall, and then never see it again, whereas the people in the area have to live with it. So it’s a funny thing from an impact point of view, but from an artistic point of view, the bigger, the more impact, the better.

When I first started tagging, everything was on such a small scale. Now I’m doing a four or five-storey wall in TriBeCa. I’m paying for the paint, and I’ve become a painter, so it’s all good.

Walking into the gallery space made me think that I was in a 360-degree movie theater.

I was hoping you would be engulfed by them. The paintings are quite big, so I wanted the viewer to be surrounded by them like walking into an arena. That’s why I made the spotlight in the center. It’s Like the gladiator.

Do you listen to music when you paint?


What did you listen to when you were making this?

I listened to a lot of new hip-hop. My favorite group at the moment is Run the Jewels with El-P and Killer Mike. I like Action Bronson and all kinds of stuff from Joey Bada$$. I also listened to a lot of Nicolas Jaar and electronic music. This guy called Nils Frahm from Berlin is a classical musician who makes electronic music. It’s very cinematic, swooping, electronic/orchestral music. The proportions of my paintings are widescreen like cinema and film, and a lot of soundtrack stuff gets me going.



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