His work has always been so controversial and baffling to some that a cleaner once mistook an installation for rubbish and threw it out. On the eve of a major new retrospective in Doha, Think. profiles a man whose eerie yet serene obsession with death has made him one of the most iconic and celebrated artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – Damien Hirst. Written by Sophie Hastings.
Of all the Young British Artists (YBAs), that extraordinarily diverse group of art practitioners and provocateurs who shot to fame in London and then beyond during the eighties and nineties, Damien Hirst has become the most prolific, the most expensive and the best known.
While others of his cohort are celebrated, respected and internationally collected – Gary Hume, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread, Sam Taylor-Wood, Mat Collishaw, Gavin Turk, Fiona Rae and Anya Gallaccio, to name but a few – Hirst is a “brand artist”, with the kind of global recognition that reaches way beyond the art world cognoscenti and places him alongside American superstars such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince.
The image is The Immortal (1997 – 2005) by Damien Hirst. Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, stainless steel, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution (102.75 x 202.5 x 96 in / 2610 x 5142 x 2438 mm). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2013.
Everyone has heard of Hirst’s sharks suspended in formaldehyde, beginning with The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991); most people have seen a spot or spin painting, and even if they haven’t, they’ve probably bought a mug or a cushion cover inspired by one.
For the Love of God, Hirst’s 18th century human skull cast in platinum and covered in 8,601 perfect diamonds, weighing 1,106 carats, stunned fans and detractors alike: with Old Masters and modern art works selling for millions, what does it mean when a contemporary artist creates an object whose worth is indisputable, simply by dint of its materials? When the skull was unveiled in 2007, the multiple layers of meaning that underpin all Hirst’s works were drowned out by shockwaves induced by its apparent swagger and cynicism, its perceived celebration of a grotesquely bloated art market.
But For the Love of God is the ultimate expression of Hirst’s obsession with death, his attempts to contain and examine its ever-present threat, and the beauty its proximity gives to life: “I think it’s the most alive thing I’ve ever made,” he said of the skull. Having been resistant to the idea of a retrospective (there is footage of Hirst responding vociferously to David Bowie in 1996, when asked by the musician if he would ever show at the Tate – “No way! It’s for dead artists… it’s totally ridiculous!”), Hirst recently changed his mind, leading to the first substantial survey of his work in a British institution which showed at Tate Modern in London last year.
“I’ve got far enough away from the things I made at the beginning,” he told the gallery’s director, Sir Nicholas Serota, in the accompanying catalogue. “I’m definitely in a different place, and I prefer the place I’m in now, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Hirst’s astonishing rise to fame and notoriety, his successful manipulation of the international art market, his support of his fellow YBAs, and the impact of his work on us and many generations to come, are all products of a collision of personality and circumstance that were key to the development of the current contemporary art world, with London’s museums, galleries, auction houses and grassroots scene at its heart.
Growing up in Leeds, the son of Mary Brennan, a shorthand typist, and a father he never met, Hirst was fascinated by death from an early age, as well as by the objects that speak vividly of people’s lives, particularly in their absence. His next-door neighbor, the mysterious Mr Barnes (who always left the house with a shopping trolley), turned out to be an obsessive hoarder of things ranging from toothpaste tubes, tools and parcels of money to alarm clocks, newspapers, pipes, pens and letters, as well as heads from statues found in graveyards.
When Mr Barnes disappeared one day, rehoused by the council, young Damien broke into the house and used the rigorously organized chaos “to piece together the life of a man he never knew”, wrote Gregor Muir, in his memoir of the YBA scene, Lucky Kunst. The influence and language of accumulated found objects are felt throughout Hirst’s oeuvre. The Medicine Cabinets series and the vitrines filled with pills, boxes of medication, clinical instruments, ashtrays, cigarette butts and shells are re-workings of the Victorian cabinet of curiosities, but they can also been seen as the constant reorganization and formalization of the detritus of Mr Barnes’s existence.
While these installations are a response to the legacy of Pop art, Abstraction and Minimalism, Hirst is ultimately most interested in looking at life and mortality. Amid intimations of the search for self and the absent father, Hirst’s conjuring of death and his re-evaluation of our desperate faith in science as some kind of cure-all, are what give these works their resonance.
“The fragility of existence was Hirst’s big theme from the beginning,” wrote his friend and frequent interviewer, the late Gordon Burn. “The action of the world on things. It’s why he puts things behind glass and in formaldehyde in big steel and glass cases: to hold off the inevitable decay and corruption; as part of a futile effort to preserve them.” Hirst told Serota: “I’d always thought about death since I was seven years old. I remember when it first dawned on me that it was inevitable, and I could never stop thinking about it, from a gruesome point of view. I’ve thought about it every day since, and every day I think about it, it’s different. It goes from being impossible to the only thing. I remember thinking that, in a way, it’s what gives life its beauty… But you never really can come to terms with it or understand it.”
His early explorations of death, art, medicine and science came in the form of visits to the Leeds Museum and Art Gallery, which brought together a natural history display with a library and an exhibition space upstairs, serving to introduce Hirst to art as part of life rather than something “other”, a rare piece of luck for a British working class boy born in 1965.
As a teenager, he spent time at the Leeds University anatomy department, thanks to his girlfriend’s mother, who worked there. Hirst drew cadavers and body parts and pored over medical pathology books, imagining himself as a young Leonardo – crossed with a sophisticated consumer able to enjoy “hideous subject matter in the context of pristine, detached photography so they become delicious, desirable images”, as the critic Brian Dillon put it in his essay on Hirst, Ugly Feelings. Later, Hirst compared these photographs to the clever, clinical advertising of Saatchi & Saatchi, whose slick, minimal aesthetic he emulated in his art.
The appearance of intellectual detachment should not be interpreted as emotional distance, however. Hirst’s work is as much about feeling as it is about ideas. As the Tate Curator Andrew Wilson points out: “Hirst’s art exists at the tipping point between the rationalism of Enlightenment thinking and the irrational and unpredictable emotion of romanticism.” Or as Hirst would have it: “I like creating emotions scientifically.”
In a now iconic photograph of Hirst posing next to the severed head of an older man whose flesh hangs in lugubrious folds, With Dead Head (1981), the 16-year-old Hirst looks elfin, with spiky hair and a manic smile. “If you look at my face, I’m actually going, ‘Quick, quick, take the photo,’” he told Dillon. “It’s worry, I’m absolutely terrified. I’m grinning but I’m expecting the eyes to open and for it to go: ‘Grrrrrraaaagh!’
As a clear precursor to For the Love of God, With Dead Head demonstrates Hirst’s early understanding that an on-going confrontation with death was to be his subject, no matter how uncomfortable. The photograph was also an indication of Hirst’s preternatural abilities: to produce one’s first memento mori aged 16 is unusual. The budding artist took his preoccupation with the morgue, the abattoir, the laboratory and the operating theatre to Jacob Kramer College, Leeds, where he completed an art foundation course, and then to the depths of southeast London, where he attended Goldsmiths College between 1986 and 1989.
The impact of Goldsmiths on Hirst’s generation of artists cannot be overestimated. Under the aegis of the college’s head of art, Jon Thompson, who took the enlightened step of eradicating boundaries between departments so that students could move at will between painting, sculpture, print and photography, Goldsmiths became known as a hub of intellectual and artistic freedom where the exploration of all the disciplines merged with rigorous discussion, seminars and tutorials.
The image is Mother and Child (Divided), Exhibition Copy 2007 (original 1993) by Damien Hirst. Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, acrylic, monofilament, stainless steel, cow, calf and formaldehyde solution (82.125 x 127 x 43 in / 2086 x 3225 x 1092 mm in two tanks, and 1136 x 1689 x 622 mm also in two tanks). © Tate, London 2012 © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012.
Students were treated like artists, an open-studio system encouraged self-confidence and self-motivation, critical debate abounded, and teachers included the practicing artists Yehuda Safran, Richard Wentworth and, most notably, Michael Craig-Martin, whose influence has often been acknowledged by the YBAs. At Jacob Kramer, unable to decide between sculpture and painting, Hirst had focused on collage as a medium where the two collided. At Goldsmiths, his inability to choose was par for the course. “I suppose that’s what happens in music now,’ he told Serota, “it’s like sampling, and that’s really what we were doing as artists.”
London hadn’t been cool since David Hockney and Peter Blake emerged in the Swinging Sixties, but as Britain reeled from the Black Monday stock market crash of October 1987 through to the Poll Tax riots of 1990, Hirst found himself in a city that was experiencing profound change. Punk and Goldsmiths had instilled in him a healthy disrespect for the rules; the Saatchi Gallery in North London, with shows like the two-part New York Art Now, and the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, where Hirst worked part-time, gave him a window into the world of artists such as Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Ashley Bickerton and Jeff Koons.
At the same time, the workings of the art market were a source of fascination to him. He eschewed the traditional trajectory by which the artist went from college to gallery, to be given a show every two years or so and left to work toward the next one in the interim; and he was not alone in his rejection of a system that left the artist virtually powerless.
In early 1988, his fellow student Angus Fairhurst organized an exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery that included works by Hirst, Fairhurst, Mat Collishaw and Abigail Lane. Then, in August of the same year, with the help of Fairhurst and Lane, Hirst produced Freeze, a three-part exhibition that showcased the work of many future YBAs in an industrial building renovated by the students themselves. “For a group of young art students, there was no precedent for such a high level of presentation,” observed Muir. “The exhibition was filled with flashing lights and minimalist wall paintings, with a selection of conceptual sculptures and paintings being given the run of the space. For his contribution, Hirst exhibited one of his earliest spot paintings, a regimented assortment of multi-coloured dots painted directly onto the walls.”
Hirst’s professionalism as the curator of Freeze was part of what made that show legendary. He didn’t just invite the collectors and curators of the day, like Charles Saatchi and the Royal Academy’s influential Exhibitions Secretary, Sir Norman Rosenthal; he drove them to the Docklands himself, and he also took them to see his friend Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture, Ghost, showing at the Chisenhale Gallery in the East End.
“There was at this time, and happily continues to be, a great generosity of spirit among these artists, who not only show together but support each other in a thousand other ways too,” wrote Rosenthal in his essay for the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition in 1997. “Thus was established a new subculture that became so substantial and widespread it could not fail to be noticed.”
Hirst returned to college, presenting four Medicine Cabinets for his degree show. He made more spot paintings, which he described as a way of controlling color through a “scientific approach” to painting, as well as expressing his love of Minimalists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. He was also struggling whether to give up art and become a curator, deciding eventually to apply his curatorial skills to his work. This led directly to the creation of A Thousand Years, the life-cycle installation that involved a rotting cow’s head covered in feasting, hatching flies which ultimately found their way to the deadly insect-o-cutor, their death-throes vocalized by crackly, electrical zaps.
Made for another highly significant group show, Gambler, curated by Carl Freedman and Billee Selman in 1990, A Thousand Years was heavily influenced by the paintings of Francis Bacon. Hirst wanted to make art with meaning, he said, after the “happiness” of the spots: the flies were black dots, spots with darkness, and the work was “alive”. Burn wrote that “‘Francis Bacon said repeatedly that he was committed to the brutality of fact.
Echoing this, Hirst has said he likes the violence of inanimate objects.” The endless dualities and juxtapositions in Hirst’s work – life and death, movement and stillness, dark and light, beauty and gore, hope and fear, science and religion – came to fruition in this strange, visceral work that was almost dangerously good. “The fly piece was the most exciting thing – still is, possibly – the most exciting piece I made,” Hirst told Burn. “I still don’t really understand how you get to those moments. It’s instinctive; you can’t really control what you do. Lucian Freud said to me, ‘I think you started with the final act, my dear,’ or something like that. And in a way I think he was right. I’d feel lucky if I made another piece that was like that. But I don’t really know what the inspiration was.”
Hirst followed this apparently inimitable work with its polar opposite, his mind-blowingly beautiful two-room installation, In and Out of Love, conceived as a solo show in a former travel agency in London, 1991. In the first room, five white canvases were scattered with pupae that hatched into butterflies, which fluttered into the second room to live off flowers and sugar water, laying eggs and landing on surprised visitors, before eventually dying. Hirst said it was an attempt to create “a living de Kooning painting – but I ended up with something else”.
At this point, 1991-2, Hirst was given a solo show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and began to make his first works containing animals suspended in formaldehyde. Charles Saatchi’s commissioning of Hirst’s hugely ambitious tiger shark project, for which he gave the artist £150,000 production costs, resulted in what is widely considered to be one of the most iconic images of late 20th century art. Dillon has referred to Hirst’s ability to touch that feeling we all experience, sometimes called the sixth sense, “a particular bodily shudder, a grimace that we are unsure whether to ascribe to the aesthetic or the organic”.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living certainly induced a collective shudder across the UK when it was unveiled in 1992. Loved and hated in equal measure, Hirst’s shark became the emblem of the burgeoning Britart scene, an example of brazen self-promotion or a powerful new conceptualism underpinned by wit, originality and immense sophistication of design, depending on your take. Hirst described the project as “irresistible”, told us that “art can heal”, and continued to work in this medium.
His single lamb floating in a glass tank, Away From the Flock (1994), was a heart-breaking embodiment of loneliness, loss and vulnerability, although Hirst found it “almost serene”. A dissected cow in 12 tanks, Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything (1996), allowed the viewer to walk through and around the segments of the animal that seemed to stretch endlessly ahead – death was contained yet relentless, clinical yet suffocating. Mother and Child Divided, the bisected cow and calf first shown at the 1993 Venice Biennale, referenced the religious iconography that Hirst, a Catholic until he was 12, juxtaposes with his examination of science as the now dominant belief system in the West.
In the immensely productive years that followed, Hirst added to his signature spot and spin paintings; developed his Medicine Cabinets and pharmacy installations; made sculptures of delicately levitating balls, of flayed saints and angels, as well as a 20-foot bronze replica of a child’s anatomical model, Hymn 1999-2005. He made monochrome canvases of dead flies and others that resembled stained glass windows filled with iridescent butterflies.
He opened Pharmacy restaurant by London’s Notting Hill Gate in 1998 and closed it in 2003, auctioning the fixtures and fittings for £11 million. Always a controversial figure, Hirst inspired much tabloid hilarity in 2001 when an installation at Eyestorm Gallery was thrown away by a cleaner who mistook the bottles, empty coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays Hirst had assembled to represent an artist’s studio for rubbish. He showed his collection of works by Warhol, Prince, Bacon and Banksy, as well as by many of the friends he had once exhibited at Freeze, in the group show, MurderMe, at the Serpentine Gallery, 2006. And then, in 2008, he mounted an auction of his own work at Sotheby’s, a move that he describes as “a moment of transition”.
Beautiful Inside My Head Forever was no mere auction; in bypassing the gallery system and making his own market, Hirst whipped the international art world into a buying frenzy, bringing in £111,576,800 and establishing art as “the most powerful currency in the world”, as he put it. “I spent a long time trying to escape from who I am. I always wanted to try not to make ‘Damien Hirsts’, which is why I’ve made so many kinds of things. Now I don’t try so hard to do that, I just want to make art.” Whether he has been successful in his new aim is a subject on which visitors to the forthcoming exhibition in Doha will be able to draw their own conclusions.
A former Features and News Editor of Art Review, Sophie Hastings has written on art for numerous publications and is a Contributing Editor of GQ.
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