Sober for once, though badly hungover, Damien Hirst in the middle of the afternon has the bleached-out look of someone who survives on chip butties. His skin is ashen and he is unshaven. He lights up a cigarette, fiddles with his shoelace, picks at a nostril and says he would rather be in bed.
Hirst is 28 and riding high on celebrity. Last week a show of his new work and that of 14 of his friends opened at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. The show is entitled Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away . . . and combines fierce images of torture and violent sex, death, murder and decay. It includes a a 6lb pat of butter that alternately melts and freezes, and an 8ft tangerine wax figure of the French writer, Balzac, apparently masturbating under his dressing gown. (When the original plinth made the sculpture too tall, the gallery simply hung Balzac upside down from the ceiling.)
Hirst's main contribution, other than as the curator of the show, is a white canvas painted with coloured spots and (much more in the Hirst style) a fluffy but dead lamb floating in a glass case filled with a solution of formaldehyde. Previous Hirst works in the same genre have included the skinned head of a cow being devoured by maggots and a cow and its calf sawn in half and encased in glass tubs (more formaldehyde) to display their innards.
The lamb came from a knackers' yard in Guildford and now, entitled Away From the Flock, looks out on to the freshly mown grass of Kensington Gardens. What is the point of it? Hirst replies: 'I like to take things that are banal - animals that have no personality - and use them to make people think. The lamb makes you think about all sorts of issues: life, death, the after-life. The way we treat animals. Either it ended up as dog food or in my art.'
THE RUDIMENTS of Hirst's craft may be simple enough - first purchase your dead lamb, then acquire glass case and preservative - but in fact he has done a remarkable thing. In a world bored by sentences that link 'art' with 'controversial' he has aroused critics and public from the torpor of the new. All the old arguments have come alive again. What is art? Is this art? 'Of course, it's art,' Hirst replies. 'It's in an art gallery.'
The critics are, in the usual phrase, divided. 'A very open survey . . . an eye-wrenching experience,' extolled Richard Cork in the Times. The Independent's arts correspondent, David Lister, complained that the show 'borders on a video-nasty', while William Packer of the Financial Times dismissed it for being 'so safe, so predictable, so orthodox'. Hirst is amused by the furore and clearly loves the publicity, but he is also defensive. 'It's very easy to knock it and say: 'Well I could have done that.' The fact is, you didn't think of it first. I did.'
Indeed he did and last week reaped the profit when a foreign collector paid pounds 25,000 for his dead lamb (Baa-rmy, said the Sun, whose notice of Hirst is some measure of his success). But this to his critics merely demonstrates how publicity can charm the gullible. Hirst, for them, is simply enjoying a joke at someone's large expense, a talented showman with very good contacts. His enthusiasts take a more solemn view. Simon Wilson, curator of interpretation at the Tate Gallery, which owns one Hirst piece, insists that the artist is 'extremely intelligent and shrewd; a very professional, together personality with an intense and highly original sense of creativity'.
For people such as Wilson, and there are quite a few of them, Hirst is the most exciting young artist in Britain. His passage to this position, whatever it owes to talent, is also the result of perseverance and luck. Hirst was born in Bristol in 1965, the son of a car salesman, and grew up in Leeds, where he went to Allerton Grange Comprehensive. Here his early ambition to become a draughtsman were hampered by the messiness of his technical drawing. 'He was just a normal boy,' says his mother. 'No worse than any other. He was into punk, but not extreme. He did just enough work to get him into art college. No more.'
On the kitchen table he also made collages a la Kurt Schwitters. He failed to get into Central St Martin's School of Art and Design in London, but came to the capital anyway and worked on a building site for two years before he was accepted for Goldsmith's College in 1986.
Goldsmith's was then the 'hottest', most fashionable art college in London. It allowed Hirst to expand his collages and forced him to think about other work he wanted to do. 'They'd make us question everything we did and everything we talked about. It was great.'
Goldsmith's also opened doors on a whole network of contacts without which it is almost impossible to make a career as an artist today. He got to know Goldmsith's best-known tutor, Michael Craig- Martin, and the adman and art patron, Charles Saatchi. The college also pioneered courses that taught students how to get on in the world. How, for example, they might get a gallery and how they should present their work to its best commercial advantage.
The lessons were not lost on Hirst and today he talks a lot about money. 'I sell the spot paintings for about pounds 10,000. I once sold some sausages in formaldehyde for about pounds 12,000. But it costs a lot to do the work. The lamb cost about pounds 8,000 to make. The glass has to be really thick; bullet-proof because it's in a public gallery. The lamb was the cheapest bit.'
Once out of Goldsmith's, Hirst did not hang around waiting to be noticed. He went straight to work on his own career. It was his energy as a curator, putting together shows with his friends, that brought him his first attention. A 1988 show entitled Freeze, financed by the now defunct Olympia & York (the developers of Canary Wharf), was a sell-out and was followed in 1990 by two more shows, Modern Medicine and Gambler.
Although Hirst continued to paint and to draw (he was eventually shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1992), it was two individual pieces that turned him into the nearest any young artist in Britain gets to being a household name. The first, commissioned by Charles Saatchi in 1991 and exhibited in the Cologne Art Fair last November, was of a 14ft tiger shark embalmed in formladehyde in the now-regulation glass case.
Like Marcel Duchamp, Hirst has always made a bit of a thing of the titles of his work and exhibitions. The shark, with its ugly mouth agape, is called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
The second crucial piece was the one whose real name is Mother and Child, although it is always referred to as 'the cow and calf'. Mother and Child was put on show at the Venice Biennale where it attracted much attention, not least because the case sprung a leak, forcing the organisers to clear the gallery while they summoned the public health authorities (a breakdown in Hirst exhibitions is not uncommon - last week at the Serpentine the freezing unit on Jane Simpson's butter sculpture stopped and the piece dripped water all over the floor).
Despite or because of the uproar, much of Hirst's work is beginning to appear in public collections. In addition to the Tate's piece, there are other works in Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, New York, Jerusalem and Berlin, where Hirst now lives.
SERIOUS fans of Hirst's work believe he is the latest in a long and honourable line of artists who have grappled with the twin ideas of representing death and the reality of life in art.
The Tate's Simon Wilson believes the public's obsession with the 'yuck factor' in Hirst's animal pieces 'has obscured the real seriousness of his art. Damien has homed in, in quite a new way, on a theme that is central to the tradition of Western art, which is about ephemerality and human existence on this earth.'
Jay Jopling, the elegant and soft-spoken son of the former Tory Agriculture Minister, who is now Hirst's dealer, believes his client's roots stretch back through Jeff Koons, Carl Andre, Duchamp, Picasso and Cubism all the way back to the medieval Germanic tradition of Vanitas art, and its concentration on death.
Not everyone agrees. Tim Hilton, art critic of the Independent on Sunday, believes this gives Hirst a spurious pedigree to which he is not entitled.
'I don't see in what Hirst's originality consists. These dramas with dead animals were done by other people 20 years ago and more, and with similarly little genuine effectual points. It's as though he wishes to make operatic gestures within the art gallery as a substitute for art itself. This may be a sign of our times, but it's a worrying one. I grant that he is a successful publicist. When have so many column inches been filled with so little?'
Hirst is a very young artist and could have a long career ahead of him. Until the hype dies down, and a new enfant terrible is discovered to distract the public's attention, it will be impossible to judge whether his dead cows go sour like fresh milk, or whether, like long-life, they will last. Anyone willing to take a punt should consider making an investment in the arts. Hirst's cow and calf are still for sale. The price is pounds 100,000.
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