Is Mr death in?

Or put another way, Damien Hirst. Was ever an anagram more apt? His new film, in the Hayward Gallery show 'Spellbound', is about... guess what? Gordon Burn reports. Portrait by Alastair Thain

Gordon Burn
Saturday 17 February 1996 00:02

The London art scene in the Nineties has been pretty much a group one. And the group by and large has been the one that came out of Goldsmiths' College around '88 or '89 and showed at the two ground-breaking warehouse exhibitions that Damien Hirst curated: Freeze (1988), and Modern Medicine (1990).

There was an attempt to re-create the spirit of these shows in the winter of 1995, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis put on Brilliant! New Art From London. Nineteen of the artists represented went over to America for the opening, and the party was still continuing several weeks later at various locations in London. One night, in the falling-down season just before Christmas, it surfaced in an industrial building close to Smithfield market, where it was the usual happy boil-up of heads, throats, sweat-pasted hair. But with this crucial difference: the palpable sense, shared by everybody present, of living in an unrepeatable moment, of being there when.

The crummy building with the lurching lift and echoey stairs and sodden landings and poorhouse institutional walls... the battered sofa and dumpster fridge and skittled bottles of Lowenbrau and Smirnoff and Jim Beam... a great silver cycloptic Mitsubishi television and a drum kit on a carpet and the tape of a gymnast looping over against a wall... It was generic. Angus Fairhurst had put together a band which, in addition to himself, included Mat Collishaw and Gary Hume - his (and Damien Hirst's) contemporaries at Goldsmiths'. Artists in the band, with artists out front - Sarah Lucas, Abigail Lane, Michael Landy, Tracey Emin, Angela Bulloch - supporting them.

Low Expectations' first public performance was the excuse for the party in the studio in Clerkenwell Road. And even those who hadn't been there before, had been there before, had been there before. This was Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the Electric Circus in 1965; it was Rauschenberg and Oldenburg and Rosenquist and Poons playing at Bob and Ethel Scull's party, described by Tom Wolfe in "Bob and Spike", in the mid-Sixties, around the time most of these people were being born.

It would be naive to suppose that there weren't the usual undercurrents of competitiveness and petty jealousy and frustration circulating. But as a group and for the time being they present a conspicuous and almost unprecedentedly united front. In Minneapolis, for example, Damien Hirst agreed not to show any of his dead animal pieces. In the interest (it was said) of group solidarity: it was feared that the controversy they aroused would inevitably overshadow everything else in the show.

It may also be because he felt that his appearance in Minneapolis would shift the balance of attention unfairly in his favour that Damien Hirst did not accompany the others to the opening of Brilliant! Since his first short-listing for the Turner Prize in 1992, he has achieved the level of promiscuous Warholian celebrity that long ago transcended the coterie journals of the art press: he can turn up as a gossip column item, a game- show question or an op-ed cartoon. The original title for the film which is his contribution to Spellbound was Flying ("Everybody in it was going to have their zips down") - a (possibly unconscious) reference to a career trajectory that has so far defied gravity. The film's central image is of a wartime Spitfire pilot flying mesmerically upwards into the blue beyond: "You have no sense of time or distance or even gravity and there's a deadly silence. The engine cuts out and there is a sense of nothingness and then a sense of falling backwards... back down to earth." The Icarus plunge is the prevailing counter-image: a doctor is defenestrated; a butterfly burns its beautiful wings on an Insectocutor. In an early version of the script, a woman falls off a ladder and is impaled on a minimalist steel sculpture by Sol Lewitt: up like a rocket, down like a stick.

In the film there is constant heavy traffic in a skywards direction of the souls of the deceased - of everybody, in fact, unlucky enough to drift into the force field of the dreamy, duffle- coated figure known as Marcus Hellman, a kind of unwitting but increasingly witting terminator - a serial killer, or serial assister in death. Way to go! His victims are turned into road rash, wrapped around lampposts, pitched out of windows; they slit their wrists, stick their heads in the oven, go up in flames.

Any connection between Marcus Hellman and Andy Warhol may be wholly accidental, but the visual referencing of Warhol images - a car crash, a mid-air suicide, other nods to Warhol's "death-and-disaster" series - certainly is not.

Andy's Children: They Die Young was the title of a magazine article which appeared while Warhol was still alive and running his "Factory". Since his death a number of former Factory-hands have expressed the view that Andy drew succour from watching what he regarded as the bits of human flotsam who hung around him go under. "Andy loved to see other people dying," Emile de Antonio has said. "This is what the Factory was about: Andy was the Angel of Death's Apprentice as these people went through their shabby lives with drugs and weird sex and group sex and mass sex."

By this reckoning, Warhol (like Marcus Hellman) represents the obverse of Schrodinger's metaphor about the essence of life being the suction of negative entropy from the environment. "I wonder if Edie will commit suicide?" it is claimed Warhol once said of his former "superstar" Edie Sedgwick. "I hopes she lets me know, so I can film it." Warhol's film Suicide, his first experiment with colour, was based on a man who had tried to slash his wrists 23 times. (The person involved took out lawsuits and the film was never shown.)

Damien's preoccupation with death is well enough established by now. But his involvement with film provides a new slant on the old relationship between death and photography (which Roland Barthes defined as the place where death went when religion let it go). There is an obvious correspondence between the rectangle of the film frame which entombs the human image, and the clean geometry of the steel-and-glass vitrines which "frame" the artificially preserved carcasses of Damien Hirst's farmyard animals. The human context lends a slightly sinister undertow to something Damien once said about his work: "I like the idea of trying to understand the world by isolating something from it. You kill things to look at them."

Marcel Duchamp had "Rrose Selavy". Warhol had Ondine, Ultra Violet, Joe Dallesandro and his roster of spaced-out "superstars". During his first burst of fame he hired Alan Midgette, an actor, to impersonate him on a lecture tour, explaining that Midgette was "more like what people expect than I could ever be". Damien's current alter ego is his friend, the actor and Soho prankster Keith Allen, who was in the Blur video he directed, plays Marcus in Hanging Around, and is involved in a projected feature film. Marcus represents the parallel existences, the shared selves that the film seems in some way to be about. His is a fugitive identity. He has the name of one Damien Hirst friend, the physical form of another; all his "wives" are the same woman. "I just wanted two identities, that's all," Duchamp said, explaining why he had his friend Man Ray photograph him as a woman. "It was a sort of ready-made-ish action." (A Man Ray iron sits on the desk in the psychiatrist's office in Hanging Around, alongside Meret Oppenheim's fur cup and saucer.)

Duchamp did not allow his hand to interfere with his mind: an artist was "just someone who signs things". Many of Andy Warhol's best known films were produced and directed by Paul Morrissey; probably half the paintings were created completely by assistants. It's an aesthetic Damien shares: "art without angst".

As you would expect, his approach to film making is similarly lacking in angst. Hanging Around inevitably incorporates many of the motifs he has made familiar through his art - butterflies, ping pong balls, dying cigarettes, dead meat, bug zappers - but it doesn't set out to be an art film.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, who equate roughness of execution with rebelliousness, and sometimes confuse the untrained look with sincerity, poverty, even purity of intention, Damien has always eschewed the gimcrack and the home-made. This was true even of the shows he curated as a student: they were designed and catalogued to a professional standard. He has always gone in for technical perfection and finish, a kind of surface glamour. Even when working with dead matter (entrails, preserved flesh) - he has always rated high production values over experimentalism.

Just as Damien's Blur video harked back unexpectedly to Benny Hill and Dick Emery and Saturday morning television, Hanging Around is a challenge in some ways to the normal notions and practices of the art film.

There are no scratches or stains or multiple superimpositions. No arbitrary zooms, focuses, changes of angle and depth of field and light intensity. There is a narrative: actors and a story. It is realistic. Naturalistic, even. Reading it on the page, you would expect the pivotal monologue of Philip, the old airman, to be delivered in a flat, uninflected, deadpan (art-house) manner. In fact it is done in character, straight, with an accent, almost soap-operatically, like a scene from Z Cars.

In one scene in the film a woman tells her husband: "You have to come down. People are expecting you." He replies: "I'm not in a fit state, Camilla... Just go down and be a good hostess, will you?" The man happens to be a junkie; the woman is wearing a Rifat Ozbek outfit based on a Damien Hirst spot painting. But it is an exchange that suggests Emmerdale, not Terence Rattigan.

As film critic David Thomson has pointed out, all but a few movie fanatics have seen more moving imagery on a television screen than at the movies; television is on "like the light". Like most of his generation, Damien is not a film buff but a channel-surfer. "I'm more interested in Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, he says, "than... I don't know... Richard Lester." His film could be seen as being in the long tradition of "found" objects, which achieve their power as art by being removed from their normal context and placed in a gallery setting. By this logic, Hanging Around could be slotted into a normal evening's viewing without causing undue alarm.

The working title of the film, Is Mr Death In, is an anagram of Damien Hirst. (Others, he points out, are "A denim shirt", "Near mid-shit", and "Ten mad Irish"). So it is effectively "Damien Hirst by Damien Hirst".

Lines of dialogue echo titles of pieces: "All day long telephone numbers come into my head and I get this strange urge to dial them." The party in the film takes place in the Notting Hill house where Damien hosted a lavish party last year. An actress wears an outfit virtually identical to the one that his girlfriend Maia Norman wore to the Turner Prize dinner in November; Marcus Hellman's son is his own son; friends play the wives. So how autobiographical is it? "It's only autobiographical," he says, "in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait."

The plot of Hanging Around is reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. Significantly, though, Damien says the effect he was aiming for owes more to the closing sequence of John Huston's The Dead, with its ecstatic melancholy and ghostly light and the incantatory repetition of a single word: "falling... falling... falling..."

A longer version of this article appears in the catalogue to 'Spellbound - Art and Film', at the Hayward Gallery, February 22-May 6.

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