Hirst blood

Champion of the underdog Heathcote Williams helps the animals get their revenge on our most celebrated enfant terrible. By Michael Church

Michael Church
Monday 14 August 1995 23:02

No prizes for guessing the identity of the body in the tank: yes, in this pastoral fantasy, the sheep are at last taking their revenge. Nor is the identity of the painter much of a surprise, although he is more often thought of as a poet (or dramatist, or actor). But when the entire art world - barring Brian Sewell - joins the Gadarene rush and hurls itself at Damien Hirst's feet, outsiders untainted by the noxious prevailing winds must come to the rescue.

Heathcote Williams is the sort of outsider no society can afford to be without: a foe of pseudery, a champion of the underdog, a rebel with imagination. Expelled from Eton, he became a prime mover in Oxford's Poetry Society, but spent most of his time as an undergraduate researching his book The Speakers, in which Hyde Park orators were for the first time subjected to sympathetic scrutiny. He wrote a couple of subversive (and successful) plays, then dropped out with typical thoroughness. At a time when squatting was legally and physically dangerous, he set up the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency and housed 3,000 people. His Albion Free State party advocated the turning-over of motorway space for allotments long before the anti-road lobby got its act together. He mocked the publicity- circus: in a TV documentary, all one saw of him was cigarette smoke. Derek Jarman got him to play Prospero in his Tempest and he was the deranged psychiatrist in Wish You Were Here.

With his visionary epic Whale Nation, Williams unexpectedly hit the big time. Falling for a Dolphin and Sacred Elephant carried on the fight for endangered species. No wonder little Damien gets up his nose.

"Using animals to show how we exploit animals - if that is what he's up to - has a slightly bad smell about it," says Williams. "The painting is a meditation on what animals might think of his mental processes. That's really all I have to say."

Under Nicholas Serota, the Tate has become our Vatican of visual art: the catalogue for its show Rites of Passage talks of a new "secular religion". The Hirst bubble won't burst yet, but this sly daub may help bring that piquant moment nearer.

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