Damien Hirst piece for Vogue China

An edited Chinese-language translation of a piece I wrote was published in Vogue China in November 20081. These are my original texts in response to the questions the editor proposed as the structure for the piece:

Damien Hirst

Please write down why you picked Damien Hirst?

Hirst is a controversial character who gives a writer a lot of material to get their teeth into. Whatever else you think about him and whether or not you think what he does is serious, I think you have to admit he’s making some serious points about his practice as an artist and the role of art for humanity. He’s also not shy of confronting the art world’s workings and it’s position in society.

His work has gone through many stages. It has a tendency towards the theatrical or cinematic in the sense that many of the larger works create settings in which there is a gap available for the human figure to take it’s place so we become part of the work. This sumptuous theatricality tends to overshadow the fact the Hirst is primarily a conceptual artist, concerned more with the idea behind the work than the absolute form the work takes. For him craftsmanship or artistic style are all subservient to the idea behind the work – but the effectiveness of the form often leads to his work being misunderstood (especially by the tabloid press in Britain) as semi-decorative and lacking in any deep meaning. This isn’t helped by Hirst himself who can often appear flippant when asked to justify his work.

Write about Damien Hirst’s life, his style and why he is so famous.

Damien Hirst is one of the more enduring of the YBAs (Young British Artists) who came to prominence in the 80’s and 90’s. Never shy of publicity, he is (in-)famous for his provocative artworks. Hirst’s work has crossed many media and he has also been associated with a group of immensely creative people spanning many disciplines—art, music and film—who were instrumental in injecting new energy into British cultural life at the end of the millennium.

To view Damien Hirst as a product of the state of British society at the time when he rose to prominence, is perhaps a bit trite now. While this certainly had a strong influence on him and his peers, it’s also true that he has become something of a moulder of those conditions.

Britain in the ‘80’s was the era of the Conservative government. It saw the entrenchment of Conservative thinking and policies in society as a whole. Margaret Thatcher, who became the first woman Prime Minister of Britain in 1979, presided over an overhaul of British society which placed greater emphasis on self-reliance before state responsibility. The general feeling became ‘do-it-yourself’ – don’t rely on the State to do it for you.

Art students began to see themselves almost as if they were brands, to be designed and presented in the best possible way to generate interest and ultimately that all important sale. Goldsmiths College in London became the most influential of the art-educational establishments, with British artist Michael Craig-Martin, as Senior Tutor, credited with promoting this commercially-aware style of working on his students, one of whom was the young Damien Hirst.

Hirst and his peers took the initiative in their own self-promotion, organising their own shows, creating their own market and generating excitement around their work rather than relying on the existing gallery system. They became popularly known as the YBAs (or yBas) and the show ‘Freeze’, which took place in London’s Docklands in 1988, was the starting point for public appreciation of them.

Hirst’s most significant contribution to the show and the thing which can now be seen as perhaps more important than his artworks, was his role in its organisation. Hirst was responsible for bringing in sponsorship from one of the major developers of the area, both for the show itself as well as the catalogue, which had remarkably high production values for the time. On top of that, the physical presentation within the show consciously imitated the style of the then recently opened gallery of the collector Charles Saatchi.

This early nod in the direction of Charles Saatchi was prescient, as Saatchi was destined to be one of the major players in creating the buzz around the YBAs. Saatchi is one of the co-founders of global advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, and an inveterate collector of art. His patronage of the YBAs early in their careers essentially formed them as a group in the public’s eye.

In 1991 Saatchi offered to pay Hirst for whatever work he wanted to make, and Hirst rose to the challenge, delivering his iconic piece ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ – a preserved tiger shark suspended in tank of formaldehyde. This single work has become one of the most well-known of Hirst’s pieces, and a great example of the theatricality of his work.

‘The Physical Impossibility…’ is part of a series of works of pickled animals in vitrines, some feature cows, sheep, fish, some whole, others cut into sections and mounted in separate vitrines. They all form a relationship with the viewer. In the case of the cut up carcasses each section is arranged so that we can walk between the two sides and examine the internal workings of this preserved animal. Hirst uses this technique very deliberately to control the viewers experience of his work.

The vitrines come up many times as framing devices for his works, a way of presenting a particular situation to the gaze. In much the same way a camera frames a particular view, so the vitrines frame a certain space and consequently Hirst’s work has often been said to have a cinematic aspect to it.

But the vitrines are just one of Hirst’s many devices for presenting his concepts as artworks. Others have included butterflies, as these beautiful, fragile creatures with such attenuated life spans, sometimes flying free in the gallery, at other times pressed into a flat layer of paint, the insects seemingly captured and drowning in the sea of colour. Later these become vivid, kaleidoscopic arrangements of butterflies’ wings plucked from their bodies in large spectacular arrangements.

Spots have also been present since the early days. Seemingly random collections of painted coloured dots originally inspired by scientific classification charts for chemicals and drugs. Another important device for Hirst are his titles for his works. Although never directly explanatory, the words add unexpected dimensions to the works. Often making overt religious or sexual references, the titles often bring us up short before the works, subverting our perception of the work and opening our interpretation to more allusive routes.

In the same way as death has been an obsession for Hirst, so has counter to death—modern medicine. Extensive arrangements of pills and medicine packets are presented in wall-mounted cabinets; there is a full size recreation of a pharmacy. Hirst’s first restaurant venture in Notting Hill Gate in West London was called Pharmacy, and was stocked with his signature medicine cabinets and associated paraphernalia.

In recent years he has started to produce Spin paintings, where a canvas is spun and paint dropped on top of it to create stunning abstract works. Concurrently he has presented the Fact paintings, photo-realistic paintings from photographs, including a series showing the Caesarean birth of his son, and biopsies of cancer cells.

The Fact paintings reveal Hirst’s relationship with originality and authenticity in art. As a conceptual artist, he holds the level of importance accorded to the form and the meaning of the work in an uneasy balance. In many cases the form the work takes can be dynamic, for instance in ‘A Thousand Years’, a whole life-cycle is represented in two interconnected vitrines which hold maggots who develop into flies feeding on a rotting cows head while being electrocuted above. Decay is also an opportunity for Hirst to revisit his pieces. ‘The Physical Impossibility…’ was originally made in 1992, but by 2006 due to poor materials and mishandling it had decayed to the extent where Hirst remade it for it’s new owner, with a new shark and improved preservation techniques. The Fact paintings, as well as being copies of photographs, are slavishly created by a workshop of helpers, with Hirst’s input being to add just the final touches.

Hirst has ridden the wave of British society’s changes from conservative, self-sufficient individualism in the 80’s through the branded obsession with self-presentation of the 90’s, into the relatively calmer waters of the 00’s where the groundwork laid in his earlier works have made him the iconic worker in this new economy of art. I think Hirst’s work is so famous because it manages to seduce us with it’s spectacular nature, and then unfailingly pricks at our conscience at that precise moment of seduction.

Pick the most famous artwork of Damien Hirst and tell why.

Although it used to be ‘The Physical Impossibility…’ (the shark in formaldehyde), now it’s got to be ‘For the Love of God’ (2007).

The costs involved with this piece have become the material of folk-lore, and are as much the content of the piece as the skull itself and it’s accoutrements. The production costs for the piece, the platinum skull, the diamonds themselves and all work associated with creating the object, amounted to £15million. The selling price of the skull was £50million, which (if it had sold at that price) would have made it the most expensive work of art by a living artist.

The skull works as a reminder of death, a memento mori, as well as a reminder of our changing attitudes to representations of death. The skull’s transformation into the bejewelled objet d’art speaks of the artist’s power to take ordinary objects and add value to them, this process that society still views as a quasi-mystical activity, an activity that is apparently reserved for this self-selecting group of super-humans.

The skull accrues value-upon-value, from it’s creation in the hands of the artist (or his helpers), it’s progress through the art system, reaching a peak (conceptually if not financially) at it’s most recent sale. It’s provenance provides a revealing glimpse of the process of value exchange that takes place throughout it’s life.

So, for me, the speed with which it’s value was more or less manufactured is the most interesting of the skull’s meanings, and the one which the artist appears to have deliberately designed to expose or accuse the art market of it’s rampant commercialism. Like the grain of sand in an oyster, Damien Hirst places himself squarely within this system as somewhat of an irritant.

Pick your favourite artworks, and tell why you love it.

As much as I like the skull, this is not my favourite work. I much prefer the Spot paintings from Hirst’s earlier career.

I have always been a fan of Conceptual art, art which uses subtle means to get across an idea, to the point of there being no immediate form to gain a meaning from, a meaning which only becomes apparent when you have learnt more about the piece than what is immediately in front of you. I like that moment of uncertainly and re-appraisal that takes place in the process of discovery of other meanings that just the formal. But, because I also like Minimal art, the Spot paintings manage to satisfy me both with their conceptual underpinnings as well as their formal appearance.

Give us one sentence to define Damien Hirst from your point of view.

Irreverent but simultaneously quite serious, Hirst’s visceral works ask difficult questions about our expectations from art.

  1. SANDERSON, Edward (2008). Damien Hirst, Vogue China, (November), p.221.
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Damien Hirst piece for Vogue China by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International