The Impossibility of the Idea of Damien in the Mind of the Art Critic, Forever

(ink on paper, 2,024 words, 1997).

Damien Hirst's autobiography in pictures, the breathlessly titled I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, is a scary book in more ways than anticipated. How rapidly the artist has used himself up. How quickly - chainsaw quick, cutting straight to the marrow of his own imagination - he has stilled the body of his own creative impulses. The professionally morbid Gordon Burn, biographer of Peter Sutcliffe and Frederick West, has written a curiously sentimental introduction to Hirst's book - a kind of love letter from wistful middle-aged man to young Turk - at the end of which he finds himself groping for a way to convey his subject's vitality: "`Exhilaration', `enchantment', `disturbance', `lucidity'. Words to explain why, to his friends, Damien - `Mister Death', the `Dead Cow Man' - is the most living person they know." But love is blind and the true nature of the book which Burn is introducing appears to have escaped him. Heavy as a tombstone, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere etcetera is not affirmation but epitaph. It is an artist's way of acknowledging, by subsiding into retrospection for the first time in his career, that something is over and that something has died. Damien Hirst, RIP.

Hirst has often been compared to the other famous DH of British contemporary art. "Not since the emergence in the early Sixties of David Hockney, with his gold lame and camp aphorising, his ironising attitude and his instincts for the mechanisms of celebrity... has a British artist's passage to fame been so rapid and so spectacular," writes Gordon Burn. He is right, but there are other points of comparison besides. The young Hockney's prodigiousness turned out to be a burden as well as a gift and Hockney, too, announced the death of his first and brightest self by publishing an autobiography, David Hockney by David Hockney; My Early Years. That was in 1976, some 15 years after the artist had first called attention to himself. Hirst has speeded up the process, and his own "early years" have amounted to less than a decade of truncated youth. The accelerated nature of his career was perhaps inevitable. Hirst's "instincts for the mechanisms of celebrity", and his desire to jolt the blase sensibilities of this, our fin de siecle, have led him to adopt more extreme measures than any dreamed of by his forebear in fame and notoriety. David Hockney only painted the swimming pool. Damien Hirst put a shark in it.

I Want to Spend My Life Everywhere is a manically lively book. It is not designed to be read (Jonathan Barnbrook was Hirst's accomplice in the look of it) so much as to be flipped through and played with. The artist's life is not measured out in sober prose. Instead it flashes past the eyes in a stream of images: medicine cabinet sculptures, dead animals (and yet more dead animals) suspended in formaldehyde, Damien with chainsaw and bisected pig's head from a photo-shoot for Esquire, Damien the art student, photographed in the morgue next to the head of a dead man, grinning a little fearfully at the cheek-to-cheek of it all - "face to face with death, laughing in the face of death, with a dead head next to me - it's humorous and shocking and sad and confusing". All this for just pounds 59.95 with (thrown in at no extra charge) a multitude of the artist's musings and aphorisms all printed, ee cummings-style, in lower case: "i remember once

getting terrified that i could only see out of my eyes, two little fucking holes, i got really terrified by it, i'm kind of trapped inside with these two little things to see out of," (p.41); "i thought of doing a sculpture the other day called sometimes i feel i have nothing to say, i often want to communicate that" (p.42); "art is dangerous because it doesn't have a definable function. I think that is what people are afraid of" (p.49).

The exhaustiveness of the book - which inevitably means much repetition - is leavened by fun devices. Open it at page 122 and an ingeniously folded paper butterfly jumps up at you, a pop-up in memoriam to Hirst's 1991 exhibition "In and Out of Love" (later on there is a pop-up skinned cow's head). Pull the tab on page 247 and the colours on the Damien Hirst dot painting change colour, a perfectly paper-engineered analogy for the calculated banality of the originals. Pull another one and the tank holding the pickled sheep goes black. Press cuttings ("Sheep Exhibit Attack `an Artistic Statement'"; the Daily Telegraph 17 August 1994) serve to jog the memory, while the appendix devoted to Damien Hirst cartoonage demonstrates how much duller than him his satirists have always been. Mockery is no kind of solution to Hirst's work (even if the sheer repetitiveness of the jokes that have been made do contain a certain truth about it). After all, where is the point in ridiculing something which is already itself a reductio ad absurdum?

To see Hirst's works laid out on the slab of the catalogue raisonne (for that, despite the tricks and devices, is what this book is) is to be reminded of how monomaniacally preoccupied by death he has always been. The sheer relentlessness of his obsession with that subject is his most impressive characteristic - it is virtually his only characteristic, as an artist. All of his works (the accumulating zoo in formaldehyde, the glass filled with medicines or surgical instruments) might be described as modern versions of the memento mori, were it not for the implied possibility of occasionally forgetting about death implied by that term. Even the dot paintings, mass- produced for him by studio assistants and sold, like Dali's "autograph" reproductions, to rich suckers from Manchester to Maine, may not be without mortuary significance. Contentless, null, perfectly inert, they are intended as declarations of the death of painting itself - the visual counterparts of his remark that "The process of painting is alive - it's the end process that's dead."

Hirst talks an awful lot about death, as might be expected, in I Want to Spend My Life Everywhere. "You kill things to look at them," he says in one place, but, in fact, that does not seem to have been his primary motivation. He seems to have killed things (or to have had them killed for him) not so much because he wanted to look at them, in particular, but because he was trying to sneak a look at death itself.

There is nothing fake about this preoccupation, as is sometimes implied by his critics, and nothing terribly violent about it either. All that posing with chainsaws in wide-boy suits - that whole Kray-Twin-of-Art number - is just canny, self-mocking Grand Guignol. At the centre of everything Hirst had done, seemingly uncushioned by his own growing up, lies the child's sense of shock on learning of his own mortality. "I'm going to die and I want to live forever," he says, even sounding like a child.

"I can't escape the fact and I can't let go of the desire." Hirst dancing round Death, endlessly playing pranks on it in the hope of some response or revelation, is like Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin dancing round the malevolent owl, Old Brown. The subject matter of Hirst's work has escalated like a schoolboy game of dare, a spiralling progression from one outrageous act of morbid obsession to another - first dead flies, then dead fish from the fishmonger, then (I dare you) a whole dead Tiger Shark.

The shark in formaldehyde - "lichen-sheathed, killer isoscelean teeth bared in a small dopey startled gasp," as Burn describes it - may in fact be an unusual variant of the self portrait. It is the artist's attempt (like all of the dead animal pieces) to picture to himself what it might be like to be dead - and thus to overcome what Hirst's title for the piece laboriously pinpoints as The Physical Impossibility of the Idea of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Of course the piece itself ends by being merely there, merely dead, defunct, an ex-shark (Hirst's oeuvre is Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch endlessly improvised and rephrased as international contemporary art). No revelation is vouchsafed and the result is ultimately iconic but inert - not the dreamed of conquering of death (how could it be?), but simply an example of it having happened.

Some people argue that Hirst's work is immoral, but they are on uncertain ground. His work is certainly disgusting, but that is not quite the same thing, and, in many ways, the death of Hirst's art is preferable to the death fed to us in films, say, or on television, precisely because it is real death and helps us to remember what that is like. There is something salutary about the spectacle of decaying bodies, and Hirst's work is a fairly useful corrective to the packaging up and otherwise mediating of nearly all the death that goes on in modern society.

His chief problem, as an artist, is not immorality but the fact that he has got so thoroughly to the bottom of his driving obsession that all he has done of late looks like tired self-repetition, or disgruntled parody, or regression to art student angry-young mannishness (a good example being the Brobdingnagian ashtray filled with leavings from a night at the Groucho Club which the artists misanthropically called Party Time). Hirst has unquestionably proven himself to be the most remarkable artist of his generation. Through his sculpture, but also through his other activities as agent provocateur and curator (he has always been generous in word and deed about his contemporaries - unusual in any artist), he has been almost single-handedly responsible for the recent enormous worldwide rise in the status of contemporary British art.

The trouble is that there are only so many ways to slice a dead cow. Taking what he has already done further - there has been olfactorily challenging talk of exhibiting the animals without the formaldehyde and allowing the rot to set in - is a tactic which can only expose his work to the law of diminishing returns. When what was once shocking becomes a formula it has died. Naturally the temptation to keep on making simulacra of the work that already exists will be very strong; there are lots of art museums in the world and, the conformity of modern curators being what it is, there will continue to be a demand for animals in formaldehyde, medicine cabinets and spot paintings until well beyond the millennium.

Whatever he chooses to do about it, Damien Hirst's predicament is exemplary. He is, it is well known, the father of all the YBAs (Young British Artists). What is less frequently observed is the fact that he, like most of the other leading YBAs, is actually no longer as Y as he once was. Precocious as ever, Hirst has reached that point (it happens to just about every artist) when his work seems to have reached the end of its natural life.

It seems unlikely that a man as preoccupied by death as Hirst should fail to have noticed his own, and despite its somewhat forced vigour, his book is full of clues to suggest that he himself sees it as a kind of leave-taking - a farewell to an engaging but unsustainable artistic persona. The book opens on to a double spread photograph of the interior of an ambulance, which already suggest the kind of journey it records (fast, one way, to Casualty), and it closes with a similar photograph of a hospital corridor (the terminal ward, presumably). What will he do next? Get into the music business, make films, become a different kind of artist altogether? At least now that he has composed his obituary he can get on with reinventing himself

`Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection' is at the Royal Academy, London W1 until 28 December. `I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now', by Damien Hirst, is published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, pounds 59.95

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

    £16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world