FLAT EARTH : Art for artist's sake

For those of you aching to know how Britain's bad boy of the art scene, Damien Hirst - he of the copulating dead cows and dissected pigs - would fare in America, your misery is at an end. Just fab, thank you darling.

Happily, Flat Earth was among those crammed into the risque-trendy Gargosian Gallery in Manhattan's SoHo district on Friday night for the debut of Hirst's latest New York exhibition, No Sense of Absolute Corruption. You don't have to take our word for his success, though. Just ask any of those names who turned up to give Hirst their support, such as David Bowie, Gianni Versace and - surely qualified to offer some friendly criticism - David Hockney.

Mr Hockney, normally resident in Los Angeles, was not altogether gushing about the show, the most controversial items of which include a parade of 6ft fish-tanks, in which neatly sliced cross-sections of two cows are eerily suspended in formaldehyde and another pair of tanks containing halves (lengthways) of a very friendly-looking pig. "Well, it's sort of a fairground in here," Mr Hockney suggests, fiddling with the remote control on his hearing aid. "I suppose it is the attraction of 3-D photography".

Mr Bowie notes that appreciating the artworks is a bit of a challenge with 200 people in the single-room gallery, most of them much more interested in inspecting each other. But why should he worry? He admits to owning a Hirst-efact: a mini-tank with a suspended, dead guppy.

VERSACE appears to have used the gut-section of one of the cows as the preferred back-drop for all the photographs being taken of him by the assembled paparazzi. But would the Italian fashion prince buy these embalmed specimens and display them in his dining room?

"No, I don't think so," he replied. He is taken, however, by the huge piece that consists of those electronic advertising billboards where vertical slats rotate to reveal three different images. First it displays the message "The Problem with Relationships", then comes the Warhol-like image of cucumber and a jar of vaseline. Well. But Versace can only dream: every item has been sold. The cows are going to an LA museum.

Intruding on the artist, the centre of attention in this quintessential SoHo scene, Flat Earth gently inquired about the names of some of the pieces. "This Little Piggy Went To Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home", for the pig halves was easy to grasp. But what about "Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything" for the hapless cows?

Hirst says something about the conflict between the organic (all those nasty inside body parts) and the geometric neatness of the butchery and the tanks. And what "comfort" is gained precisely, the reporter crassly persists. "Comfort?" says Hirst, squinting. "I am going to make lots of money."

WHERE would Hirst be without his shock value, though? The first attempt to get his work into America failed when government health inspectors balked at the copulating-cows exhibit and another of a dead cow's head being eaten by maggots. (Wouldn't the maggots hatch and fill Gotham with foreign flies?)

The Mad Cow scare added a new dimension to the concern this time, but the fact that the animals were immersed in formaldehyde finally convinced inspectors to let the pieces in.

Yet some indignant voices are still being raised. "Hirst's work seems to be nothing more than psychopathology masquerading as art," the American animal-rights group Peta fulminated. "If he weren't an artist, he'd probably be put away."

Indeed, there is just no ignoring those poor, sliced-up animals. Thank heavens a security guard intervenes just as one of my bulkier newspaper colleagues, a little the worse the wear from wine, is subsiding against the first in the line of cow tanks. "Please don't lean on the exhibits," the guard pleaded. "We don't want to start a domino effect, do we?" No, indeed.

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