The Impossibility of the Idea of Damien in the Mind of the Art Critic, Forever
(ink on paper, 2,024 words, 1997).
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Saturday 20 September 1997
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
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