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Death, passion and contradiction, by Bowie and Hirst

David Bowie interviews Damien Hirst. The meeting of two cultural icons, who can perplex and infuriate just as they can provoke and inspire, provides intriguing insights into the mind of Britain's most controversial contemporary artist, writes David Lister. Faced with a superstar as committed to multimedia experimentation as he is, Hirst eschews his routine cynicism to give a rare exposition of the philosophy of the installation artist.

Next week Modern Painters, on whose editorial board David Bowie sits, carries the entire interview which took place in New York where Hirst is currently exhibiting. Below is a key extract.

David Bowie: The piece [the installation pictured above right] sounds extremely confrontational. Are you concerned at all about the puritan eyes through which some of your American viewers will be seeing?

Damien Hirst: Well, I suppose the work sounds incredibly gruesome when described, but I think you can talk it in, out and over, but never really visualise or get near to the physical experience of standing in front of something like this. However well it is described, the actuality is just something that you don't expect. You could read about it in the tabloids and it would sound sensational, but when you actually encounter it, there's something sad and very quiet, almost fragile and very beautiful about it.

It's very difficult. If you try to talk it up as being something gross and excessive, then it's almost like spiralling down through your own mortality or something. I mean, the fly pieces that I did a couple of years ago worked much in that way. They sounded quite disgusting but when you actually saw them, you underwent a considerable self-revelation. You couldn't look away but somehow you couldn't criticise.

Bowie: What seems to define your work as being so different from that of your peers is a far greater degree of personal passion. A strong resentment of the idea of death. It certainly strikes me as emotive, a reverberation of sorts, whereas in the work of your friends like Gavin Turk or Sarah Lucas say, the basis seems to be a no- nonsense cynicism, a dark ironic stance maybe. You seem to straddle two worlds - conceptualism and a rather more traditional self-expression. Something that smacks of an emotional life. Is that accurate?

Hirst: Yes I think it is. I mean I can't deny it. I think that at the end of the day,art is not only a visual language that communicates an idea. The ideas maybe don't change but the world certainly does. So then, does the context of that idea change?

However, something that really gets to me is that the work should be totally delicious visually and that you shouldn't necessarily have to work hard at intellectualising. It can just be something fundamentally expressionistic. Like Bonnard said, "I just love these colours."

Bowie: So, what's the title of your fabulous pieces with the butterflies embedded in the paint?

Hirst: In and Out of Love.

Bowie: Yes, In and Out of Love. Those pieces are as strongly aesthetic, as thoroughly beautiful, as they are broadcasters of ideas.

Hirst: I think they contain contradictions. I mean, they're beautiful as paintings I suspect, but if you look closely, the butterflies are stuck in the paint, so you ask yourself, did they get there by accident or is this a result of some evil little scientific experiment or is this merely a display of some kind? I find it beautiful. I also find it repulsive. Imagining oneself as the butterfly in question, it would be quite an awful thing.

Bowie: Does one have to have a social conscience as an artist?

Hirst: I have no social conscience when I'm working. It's out of my hands. The viewer may want to make that judgement. I'm not too concerned with interpretation. Neither can I allow myself to be bothered by taboo or even an idea of integrity. Integrity you either have or you don't.

Bowie: Which artists had an effect on you? Not necessarily their work but maybe their attitude towards their work.

Hirst: Some are obvious, I suppose. Like Bacon, like Soutine, Gericault, Dennis Potter. Anybody who dealt with the gruesome. Then I went through the Goldsmith's experience and made some strange connection with minimalism, and then the gallery became merely a piece of white paper, a situation for a visual experience.

For me it can be the contradic- tion between life and death, the body and existence. The body against a creative landscape, say ...

Bowie: Does the work you produce bounce from real life experience, or do you work until an idea begins to form, or is it a combination of both?

Hirst: A combination I should think. I'm always looking and playing. Living in a world of so many objects in so many juxtapositions, there are a million ideas. I will often be stopped by an everyday object placed in a frightening situation.

But then, sometimes I start with a visual sculpture. For a long time I've had the image of an umbrella in my head, from Bacon I guess, and I've been trying to thin of a way to use that in a very physical and horrific situation. A sort of three-dimensional Bacon.

Bowie: It seems that it's painters that stimulate you far more than sculptors.

Hirst: It's such a completely illusionary world. It's a kind of belief in the square. If you look at many of the paintings that I've done, there's always a sculptural approach. They're almost like a logo as an idea of myself as an artist. Some sort of sculptural consumerist idea.

Bowie: Product plus personality equals brand.

Hirst: Artwork plus artist equals art.