Dyed-in-the-wool expressionist found guilty: A controversial artist gave evidence in court yesterday in the case of a man who savaged his sheep. Stephen Ward reports

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The Independent Online
BEFORE tipping ink into Damien Hirst's dead sheep in formaldehyde, Mark Bridger, a minor artist, conducted an imaginary conversation with his famous peer, he explained yesterday.

Bridger who earns pounds 7.50 an hour teaching English as a foreign language, told Bow Street magistrates' court in central London that he had believed Mr Hirst, who earns thousands of pounds for each of his works, would have accepted a breach of the convention that one does not interfere with exhibits in a gallery, because Mr Hirst wanted to provoke a response to his art.

In May this year, Bridger, 35, from Shotover Hill, Oxford, responded by transforming a dead lamb in a huge glass tank of formaldehyde from Away from the Flock into Black Sheep, an act he described as an 'addendum to a work of art'.

'I noticed the lid on the tank was slightly loose. I was in a carpe diem, (seize the day) frame of mind,' he explained. He had hurried from the Serpentine Gallery to an artists' shop in Notting Hill, west London and returned with ink. In retrospect the conclusion of his imaginary conversation with Mr Hirst had been a bit optimistic, he said. But if he had actually sought permission, it would have changed the significance of the gesture.

Jeremy Connor, the stipendiary magistrate, seemed to show some sympathy for the case of the poor artist. He found him guilty of criminal damage, but gave him a two-year conditional discharge, and rejected a plea from the prosecution for costs and compensation.

Bridger denied that his motives were jealousy and to seek publicity. 'I was aware that some attention would be focused on me but that was not my intention. I was expressing myself as an artist.'

He said that at art college someone had altered one of his own sculptures - a sniper pointing a rifle at a real dead heron - by painting cross eyes and daffodils on the face. Bridger added that he had been initially shocked, then amused and pleased to have provoked a response.

Damien Hirst, 29, who had torn himself away from his live rat show at the Edinburgh Festival to give evidence against Bridger yesterday, must have wondered if it was worth it. By 10.36am he was on oath in the witness stand.

'Mr Hirst, why are you an artist?' Chuck Nduke-Eze, the prosecuting solicitor, asked him.

Mr Hirst winced and mumbled as if each word pained him. Just being there seemed to pain him. Mr Hirst, from Leeds, west Yorkshire, said he lives in Berlin, Germany, in order to avoid the bad publicity his work sometimes attracts.

'I don't know why I'm an artist. I've always been an artist,' he replied.

'What sort of artist?' Mr Nduke-Eze asked.

'I do paintings, installations and sculptures,' Mr Hirst said.

'Tell us about the sheep.'

'What do want to know . . ?'

'Tell us how you acquired the sheep.'

'It was bought from an abbatoir.'

'In what condition?'

'It was dead.'

Mr Hirst said a lot of people had been to the exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and some had liked his exhibit, some not.

'The interest with the lamb is because it is made of the same stuff I'm made of.' It had been intended it should provoke a mental reaction, not a physical one. 'I want them to think about their own mortality,' he explained.

Supposing somebody had wanted to alter it? 'I'd have said mind your own business.'

Did he believe art could ever be changed? 'If I have changed art it has been mine. I have never changed other people's art unless they have asked me to.'

He was cross-examined on whether changes to art could be part of art. He had said in an interview in a magazine called Dazed and Confused that one of his dot paintings had been crayoned on by children, and he would have left it like that if the owners had not wanted it restored.

'If something bad happens, I always consider if it can be incorporated into the work,' he said. He had considered the ink, and decided it could not be incorporated, because it obscured the sheep.

Had he seen it as an additional contribution to the art, as Bridger claimed? 'Absolutely not,' he said. It had taken five hours, several people and a hired pump to empty the tank, replace the formaldehyde and strap the sheep back in, 'almost imperceptibly darker,' but no longer black.

The sheep had been sold for pounds 25,000 to an anonymous male buyer before the incident, and is currently on tour in Helsinki.

(Photograph omitted)