Damien Hirst - Master of His Own Destiny

Sarah Kent

Magazine issue: 
#2 2012 (35)

This summer for five months, London's Tate Modern is staging a major retrospective of Damien Hirst's work; despite mixed reviews, the show has become a star attraction on a par with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the London Olympics. To get in people are queuing for hours; perhaps they want to inhale the sweet smell of success or find out what makes the work so valuable. Either way it provides an opportunity to reappraise the achievements of an artist who is (in)famous in his own right, but who also masterminded the early success of the graduates who came to be known as the Young British Artists (YBAs) and who dramatically changed the London art scene in the early 1990s.

The date, September 15 2008, is famous for two things: Sotheby's opened a sale of work in London by Damien Hirst and the New York investment bank Lehman Brothers plunged the financial markets into turmoil by filing for bankruptcy.

The auction, which netted more than £111million, made Hirst the richest artist in the world — according to the "Sunday Times" Rich List of 2010, his wealth was estimated at £215 million— and also gave him the reputation of being able to outwit the markets and miraculously control his own destiny when everything else was in meltdown.

Now 47, Hirst has been famous ever since his pickled shark swam into view in a tank of formaldehyde in 1991. Titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", the shark quickly embedded itself in the national psyche as an icon of everything that was good — or bad — about contemporary art, depending on your viewpoint. Hirst was dubbed the "bad boy" of British art and scarcely a week went by without an article appearing in the press outlining his outrageous behaviour, fuelled by drink and drugs.

Known as the "YBAs" (Young British Artists), Hirst's generation includes Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Marc Quinn and Jake and Dinos Chapman, all of whom now enjoy international reputations. The early success of the group, though, was largely due to Hirst's uncanny knack of turning adverse circumstances into vital opportunities.

Hirst has lived through more than one economic crisis. When he was a student at Goldsmith's College in London the country was gripped by recession. Dubbed "Black Monday", October 19 1987 saw a huge fall on the stock market and five years later, almost to the day, came "Black Wednesday" when the pound fell to a record low. With commercial galleries closing down and publicly funded spaces desperately short of cash, graduates had no chance of being offered an exhibition. At the same time the city was full of empty factories, offices, warehouses and shops waiting to be put to use, so Hirst decided to take the initiative. He found a derelict building in Docklands and, in August 1988, launched himself and 13 fellow students onto the scene titled "Freeze".

The exhibition has since acquired mythic status, despite the fact that almost no-one went to see it. For although the scale and ambition of the enterprise was impressive — they'd had to clean and repair the decrepit building as well as raise funds for the exhibition — there was little sign that a seismic tremor was about to shake the London art scene to its foundations.

London had been a cultural backwater for modern art, until in 1985 the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi opened a gallery to show his collection of contemporary art. Housed in a former paint factory, it was the most beautiful exhibition space in town and Saatchi proudly showed work by young Americans such as Jeff Koons and Robert Gober. The scale and ambition of the enterprise was a revelation to Hirst and his peers; and not only did they emulate the example but, before long, were showing in the gallery themselves.

As art critic for "Time Out", the weekly magazine covering the arts in London, many of my most treasured memories involve encounters with the early work of Hirst and other YBAs. I'll never forget trekking to Building One — a disused biscuit factory in Bermondsey where Hirst was showing with fellow alumni in "Modern Medicine" and "Gambler", sequels to "Freeze" — where I came face to face with the first of his signature glass and steel tanks. With its cool industrial elegance, from a distance "A Thousand Years" looks like a minimalist sculpture. But whereas minimalism prided itself on the purity of its abstraction (its distance from grimy reality), Hirst's vitrines frame a life-and-death struggle of epic proportions.

Bluebottles emerge from a hidden box of maggots and, attracted by the smell of a rotting cow's head in the adjoining tank, fly through holes in the divide to feed, mate and lay their eggs. Meanwhile an "insect-o-cutor" randomly kills them, so that a pile of twitching corpses quickly builds up. "In warehouses and food stores such events are commonplace and unremarkable," I wrote at the time, "but, packaged as art and presented for contemplation, they take on sadistic overtones."

The following year Hirst again showed live insects, as an installation in an empty shop off London's Oxford Street. Hatching from pupae attached to blank canvases, huge Malaysian butterflies floated about in tropical heat and humidity, sipped sugar water, mated and laid their eggs. "In and Out of Love" is far more seductive than "A Thousand Years" for, whereas flies are associated with death and decay, butterflies bring to mind meadows, flowers and fresh air; and for the Victorians, they symbolised the soul ascending to heaven.

The mood of the installation was one of languid melancholy, until, that is, you went downstairs, where the walls were lined with canvases that had dead butterflies embedded in the monochrome paint. On the table were ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, the foul-smelling and cancerous remnants of a party, perhaps. Hirst was then a heavy smoker. "Every time I finish a cigarette," he told me, "I think about death". He has been obsessed with death ever since he was a teenager. A photograph "With Dead Head", taken in the morgue in Leeds, shows him at 16 bending down so his grinning face is cheek by jowl with the severed head of a corpse. If it weren't for the dead man's expression, this would be a grisly image. His crumpled features seem to be smiling, as though he were sharing the joke with his live companion. As a student, Hirst frequented the morgue hoping that by looking death in the face, its terror would be diminished.

"In and Out of Love" offers two views of art — as a living installation or as dead objects. And as with the flies, it encourages one to ponder the inter-relationship between life and death and also the meaning and quality of life. At the time, Hirst lived in a vile tower block in south London with broken lifts, graffitied walls and stairs stinking of piss — the kind of place that makes you fear for your life, or else contemplate suicide. Perched on a disgusting sofa that looked as if it came from a skip, I interviewed him for the first time. He blurted out his answers in staccato bursts. "I'd never been interviewed before," he told me 20 years later, "and I remember being amazed by the idea of being able to say something that would appear in print."

I've interviewed him many times since then and in the intervening years he has become more fluent and said many memorable things, such as: "Art is like holding a mirror up to life. It's about finding new ways to redo old ideas, and there's only one idea — Gauguin's 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?' People find it difficult to deal with the real world; a way around it is to allude to things through metaphor or symbols, as they do in advertising." The remark sums up almost his entire output and explains how the flies came about. "People need to feel distanced," he explained. "You can look at a fly and think of a person."

The fact that he lived in such a dismal place must surely have influenced "In and Out of Love", but the big themes which he has returned to again and again were implicit in his work from the start. I responded by writing: "Hirst alludes to heavy topics — health, meaningful living/living death, art as a live entity, the extinction of the individual and the species — with a brilliant, angst-free clarity. Powerful stuff."

The following January (1991) Hirst shared a double bill with Bruce Nauman at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London and this time showed a tank that made far more direct reference to people. "The Acquired Inability to Escape" contains an office chair and table with nothing on it except a packet of cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray. You are invited mentally to occupy the chair and imagine yourself trapped inside this elegant, but stark environment (qua executive suite or interview room) from which there is no exit. The claustrophobic space encourages contemplation of the rooms in which many of us spend our working lives and of the relationship between power and servitude. Does authority trap or free the person that wields it? To what extent are we enslaved by our desires and responsibilities?

"Damien Hirst is undoubtedly one of the most interesting artists of the new generation," I wrote. "This is major work of museum quality." For most people the story begins, though, with "Young British Artists I" at the Saatchi Gallery in St. John's Wood, the exhibition, which gave the YBAs their name and turned Hirst into an art world star. Entering the gallery you came face to face with the shark, a deeply unsettling and thought-provoking confrontation that sparked a media feeding-frenzy. In my catalogue essay I pointed out the complexity of the work, but the press could see nothing beyond the immediate impact and, with breathtaking hypocrisy, accused the artist of sensationalism — of producing a one-liner to appeal to Saatchi, who had commissioned the work.

Arguing for the importance of the work to a nation of sceptics who took pride in their cynicism, I felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. I wrote: "One of his most dramatic works to date, 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' is a 13-foot tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, a colourless liquid that resembles water so that, at first glance, the creature appears alive. The dark, silent shape — small eyes, powerful, streamlined body and razor sharp teeth — embodies ruthless, destructive efficiency. We link sharks with death, while the film 'Jaws' transformed the creature into a metaphor for the unknown, the fearful and the repressed — an embodiment of evil whose swift, underwater invisibility engenders visceral paranoia.

"'I access people's worst fears'", says Hirst. "I like the idea of a thing to describe a feeling". The sculpture brings hunter and hunted face to face. Why are we so fascinated by animals that kill and eat us? They play havoc with our value systems; they make us aware that we are meat, part of the food chain. They puncture our monstrous arrogance and the belief, inscribed in our religion, that we have the right to exploit other species.

"The shark tank — three cubes bolted together — was built by the company that made the aquaria for Brighton's Sea World. The preservation of animals in zoos and aquaria is a vexed issue; what does their captivity achieve? The great white shark, which Hirst planned to use, was declared a protected species three days before he placed his order in Australia. The sculpture acts as a gateway to the moral maize of conservation and the extraordinary tension of the piece comes from its neutrality; from raising issues, yet refusing argument. The work offers drama without catharsis, confrontation without resolution, and provocation without redress. Responsibility is returned to the viewer. Since nature is not benign, is moral living possible? Life is sustained by death; in order to eat something we kill it. Hirst is not callous; he simply points out the irony of the situation."

All the early iconic works — the shark, the flies, butterflies and "The Acquired Inability to Escape" — are included in Hirst's Tate retrospective. For me, the million-dollar question was whether they had withstood the test of time. Would the shark, in particular, still send shivers down the spine — or is it too familiar to arouse anything more than a yawn of recognition? Ten years on, would the sculpture have retained its potency or would its ability to provoke serious thought have withered with time?

In over three decades writing about art, I've seen many promising artists either give up or fizzle out. There's nothing more depressing than watching as talent withers, stalls or is misdirected and, in recent years, I've been dismayed as Hirst has begun to churn out merchandise — T-shirts, mugs, photographs, plastic skulls splattered with paint and mass-produced prints sprinkled with glitter — that undermine the value of his ideas through poor quality and endless repetition.

Money has always been part of the equation, of course. In 2000 Charles Saatchi offered him £950,000 for "Hymn", a giant bronze version of a child's anatomical toy, but he held out for £1 million. When I asked him why the extra £50,000 mattered, he explained that receiving an iconic sum for a single sculpture gave out an important message about the value of the work. Staging his own auction eight years later didn't only make financial sense: by circumventing the gallery system he was rewriting the rule book — asserting his independence from his dealers by establishing his own modus operandi.
I asked him once if his knack of making money affected his work — did he suffer from the Midas touch? "As long as you don't believe you've arrived, you're fine," came the reply. "But if you start getting complacent — thinking that you're selling shit to cunts — you're in difficulty." More and more people argue that he has been selling crap for years; the glitzy work he made for the Sotheby's auction certainly looked as though it were aimed at collectors with gold-plated taps and more money than sense.

So I went to Tate Modern with trepidation — hoping against hope that the works which had inspired me so much when I first encountered them would still seem fresh, provocative and complex. Sadly my worst fears were confirmed. The fierce predator, that once prowled the oceans of the mind, is now dead in the water. The original shark had to be replaced because the formaldehyde was not strong enough to prevent its decay, but the current fish already looks tattered, torn and lifeless — a tired zoological specimen that, lacking any sign of animation, is incapable of stimulating imaginative thought.

"Mother and Child Divided", a cow and calf sliced in half, preserved in tanks of formaldehyde and presented as walkthrough sculptures, was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1993 and later that year gained Hirst the coveted Turner Prize. It was mesmerisingly beautiful. "Flattened against the glass walls," I wrote at the time, "the landscape of each animal's interior was revealed as a delicate convolution of channels and ducts, fascinating rather than repellent. Confrontation with the complex inner workings of the animals' bodies provoked unaccustomed feelings of empathy and identification." Now the delicate pink has faded and the pallid remains seem as inert and remote from living beings as any laboratory specimen.

"A Thousand Years" seems to be suffering a serious miscalculation; instead of a swarm of flies buzzing about in space as Hirst intended, on my visit the floor of the vitrine was carpeted with corpses, with scarcely a living insect in sight. It had become a dismal spectacle of carnage, rather than the demonstration of a life cycle featuring birth as well as death. "The Acquired Inability to Escape", on the other hand, is as strong as ever. Its stark message of sterile, corporate entrapment still freezes the bone marrow.

The title of one of Hirst's most chilling sculptures evokes the devastating loneliness that induces suicide. "Standing Alone on the Precipice and Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror" (1999-2000) acts metaphorically as a landscape of despair. Arranged on 28-foot long shelves of mirrored steel, thousands of pills, lozenges and tablets address our dependence on legal and illicit drugs to ameliorate physical and spiritual sickness — to alleviate the stress or enliven the tedium of daily life. "Art is like medicine, it can heal," Hirst once told me. "Yet I've always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don't believe in art, without questioning either."

At Tate Modern "Standing Alone..." has been replaced by "Lullaby, The Seasons" (2002) a four-part work in which drugs selected for their colour and arranged on shelves to evoke the seasons — browns and reds for autumn, white and silver for winter, and so on. The desolation of "Standing Alone..." is replaced by the soft embrace of oblivion. And so it goes on: whether by accident or intent, the obsession with death that made the work so compellingly troubled has been lightened and a subtle shift in emphasis achieved. As a result, engagement turns into entertainment and provocation into titillation — this is darkness-lite.

Painted by assistants as an endless series, Hirst's spot paintings are named after legal and illicit drugs. No two are the same and, in my view, should either be shown singly or in their entirety (as they were recently throughout all the Gagosian galleries in the world). Spread around Tate Modern's galleries, they function as little more than decorative infill.

Hirst has never achieved anything in painting as radical or important as in sculpture, a fact that he acknowledges (ironically) in the title of the 1996 spin painting — "Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kids' stuff, lacking in integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, sensational, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa)". He once invited me to do a spin painting, but I declined saying I didn't like them. "Nor do I," he replied yet went on making them.

I wonder how much of his recent work he admires? He always was a showman. I've been amazed at his ability to turn a corny idea into a provocative statement simply by the compelling arrangement of the parts. But he must be aware that standing in its gold-plated tank, its gold-plated horns and hooves glinting in the light, "The Golden Calf" (2008) is unadulterated kitsch.

I believed in Hirst and in his conviction that art is more important than money; but that was before 2007 when he encrusted a human skull with diamonds and called it "For the Love of God", as though daring us to rename it "For the Love of Gold". Housed in a jeweller's display case inside a giant safe, the glistening bauble is protected by security guards who make it impossible to ignore its monetary value (it sold to a consortium for a breathtaking £50 million) or its resemblance to expensive bling. One could argue that it functions as a memento mori — a reminder that life is short and all is vanity since, as Hirst is fond of saying, "there are no pockets in a shroud". But this might feel like special pleading. First and foremost, the skull embodies the union of art and money and, for me, is irredeemably corrupted by the liaison.

Recently, Hirst has turned his back on sculpture to concentrate on painting. Currently on show in London this summer at the White Cube Bermondsey gallery, "Two Weeks One Summer" is a series of 35 still-life paintings featuring parrots, cherry blossom, pickled foetuses, a shark's jawbone, scissors and butterflies. But having chosen a set of symbols meant to indicate profundity, he has no idea how to present them. Variously arranged against a grid of dots or within a Baconesque space frame, the various elements fail to occupy the space convincingly or to interact with one another and the viewer. Hirst's best work is characterised by its effortless disregard for convention, but these paintings are like the dutiful efforts of an inept student trying to master the tradition by slavishly obeying the rules. His talent for arranging things in 3-D seems of little use when faced with a flat canvas and, even if he were competent, the results would still be dully academic.

First and foremost, Damien Hirst is a brilliant fixer — a catalyst galvanising others into realising his wild ideas and making money in the process. Having become an international star and a multi-millionaire, it seems that there is only one challenge exciting enough to galvanise him into action — the desire to be an old fashioned painter who produces all his own work so that, like David Hockney, he can claim, "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally". But this achievement looks as if it will continue to elude him.



Additional information


Damien Hirst page on artsy.net



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