Hirst returns to his home town to cries of 'spiritual bankruptcy'

  • @robbiesharp

Damien Hirst might have won over the most powerful figures in the art world with his provocative, if repetitive, imagery, but his former art college tutors are unimpressed with his morbid, money-obsessed style, claiming it is "spiritually bankrupt" and "unsexy".

A selection of Hirst's work went on display at Leeds City Art Gallery on 15 July, attracting 11,000 visitors in its first week, something of a welcome homecoming, given that Hirst grew up in Leeds and attended college in the city.

However, one former lecturer at Leeds College of Art, who taught there when Hirst attended, has now criticised Hirst's apparent obsession with expensive, marketable products, over and above artistic innovation. Hirst's main art-producing company Science Ltd was intimately involved in the show, going as far as mocking up installations in London before transferring them to Yorkshire.

Gloria Simons, a former lecturer in fine art at the college, has accused Hirst of "laughing all the way to the mortuary". She said: "Although financially the richest artist in Britain, he appears the most spiritually bankrupt. As he metaphorically dances on the graves of helpless animals and humans alike, the cash gushes like a tsunami. How far will Mr Hirst go to cause controversy? Isn't it about time that he realised that death is not sexy?"

Works on display include 1994's sheep-in-formaldehyde piece Away from the Flock. The show is being held in conjunction with Artist Rooms, a touring project assembled by the influential collector Anthony d'Offay, in conjunction with the Tate, Art Fund and National Galleries of Scotland.

Garry Barker, the Co-ordinator of Critical Studies and Electives at Leeds College of Art, who taught Hirst there, said a "mythology" had grown up around Hirst which didn't necessarily match the facts. "He was very verbal, a very interesting lad.

"I probably arranged for him to visit a local teaching hospital as part of a placement scheme; he was very interested in the human form." Barker said one of Hirst's earliest projects involved gaining access to the house of an elderly man who had recently died and making collage work from his possessions, though did not recall whether Hirst had the man's family's permission.

A Leeds City Art Gallery spokesman said that Hirst refused an offer to speak at the gallery as part of an official talk.