Damien Hirst: Putrid Profit

"I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say 'f off'. But after a while you can get away with things." Damien Hirst has been waiting a long time for this. Enjoying his status as Britain's richest living artist, Hirst has fallen back on repetitious works and pieces of exorbitant, vulgar bling. The contemporary artist wasn't always like this though; his initial works were ripe -- both with shock value and literal rot. A Thousand Years, the work that put him on the map when bought by the ultra wealthy art obsessed Charles Saatchi, was Hirst's most talked about foray into death, life, maggots and rotting flesh. A clear display case holds within it the cycle of life. On one side maggots hatch within a white box and once alive fly through the hole in the partition to make the choice between sustained life or certain death. The severed, bloody head of a cow lays on the floor while an Insect-O-Cutor hangs ominously above. Putrid, yet compelling. And certainly a conversation starter. The use of life within the exhibit as well as the honest look into life and death represented something new in the contemporary realm. Although the subjects are not transformed -- they act as only themselves within the context of the work -- they do cause the viewer to see with new eyes. They are things we've seen before, but likely never so blatantly. As with his other cow-centric work 1993's A Mother and Child Divided, Hirst knows we've all seen the subject before but never like this -- cut in half so that we may see its exterior and innards all in one fell swoop of the eye. With A Thousand Years though Hirst was fresh out of university, new to the scene and presenting radical ideas in jarring displays. The piece was displayed at the Gambler warehouse exhibit in 1991 and resulted in a long-standing, though ultimately failed, relationship with the art world super power Saatchi. [caption id="attachment_10355" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="A Thousand Years"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_10356" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="A Thousand Years"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_10357" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Mother and Child Divided"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_10358" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Away from the Flock"][/caption] Hirst has always been a rebellious spirit. Reared in Leeds by a rather authoritarian mother he found inspiration in the punk scene and had little taste for school. His artistic ability was the only thing keeping him there, with teachers happily encouraging his development -- something he was getting at home from his single mother as well. As she tried to quell his societal rebellion -- chopping up his bondage pants and melting his Sex Pistols album down into a fruit bowl -- she pushed him to stick with his drawings. After graduating and participating in a series of warehouse exhibitions he gained similar support from Saatchi, who in 1991 offered free form sponsorship for him to create whatever he pleased. The result was yet another animal floating in formaldehyde, this time a 14 foot tiger shark entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The piece has come to be an iconic piece of British art, a worldwide symbol of the country's cultural bearings and a reinstatement of the image of "Cool Britannia." It sold for £50,000 and was followed by A Mother and Child Divided in 1993 (the piece that won him the Turner Prize), Away from the Flock in 1994, and Two Fucking and Two Watching in 1995. A cow and a calf, a sheep and a rotting cow and bull, respectively. Only the latter was presented sans formaldehyde. [caption id="attachment_10359" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"][/caption] But, despite being repetitive ideas, his subsequent works attracted new headlines. 1994's Away from the Flock featuring a British lamb suspended in clear liquid was vandalized by the 35 year old artist Mark Bridger who walked into the exhibit and dumped black ink into the vitrine, renaming the piece Black Sheep. Hirst, ever protective of his intellectual property, pushed for prosecution, to the fullest extent of the law! You can imagine his fury when that meant only two years probation for Mr. Bridger. Later after releasing his autobiography I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one-to-one, always, forever, now (there's something to be said for such a concise title, eh?) Hirst referenced the act of vandalism which resulted in Bridger suing him for a violation of his copyright on Black Sheep. I'm sure the revenge suit was oh so sweet. [caption id="attachment_10360" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Black Sheep"][/caption] A year later the New York Department of Public Heath banned his Two Fucking and Two Watching from an exhibit claiming that the smell would cause visitors to lose their lunch. Apparently (and I say this because I could not find a single photo of this work -- if you have one send it over please!) the two rotting beings were making gentle cow love with the help of hydraulics. Had this all been enclosed in glass there would've been a serious chance of the bodies just up and exploding. So instead, that was it, two enormous putrid beasts freely fucking in your precious air. Oh that Damien. His incorporation of dead animals is the most interesting and controversial element of his work. He wasn't the first to do it, neither is he, arguably, the best but her certainly got the most attention for it. As animal rights organizations made a stink, Damien made millions. Also at this time and throughout the '90s Hirst was suffering from a serious booze and coke problem. He frequently made headlines with his out of control, erratic behavior -- going off at the mouth, getting the boot from various high profile London clubs and even putting a cigarette in the tip of his dick as a little parlor trick for reporters. He was cementing himself as Britain's wild child, high priced, rebellious artist and his reputation for fame, freakiness and heavy hitter finances spread like wildfire. By the end of the decade the time had come, he was finally free to make bad art. [caption id="attachment_10361" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Xenopsin, 1999 spot painting"][/caption] The 2000s have been interesting for our Damien. He kicked off the century with a hideous comment about the 9/11 attacks in the US, explaining to a BBC News reporter that "You've got to hand it to them on some level, because they've achieved something which nobody would have thought possible, especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing." Oy vey. He later apologized. Of course. Public relations can be such a pain in the ass sometimes, huh Dam? Things turned around soon enough though, as in 2007 his piece Lullaby Spring broke the living artist auction record, selling for $19.2 million to the Emir of Qatar. This was his third piece featuring a medicine cabinet filled with pharmaceuticals; a 3 meter wide steel cabinet littered with 6,136 painted pills. Lullaby, the Seasons is a series of 4 cabinets each one designed after one of the four seasons. Also this year he released For the Love of God a hopelessly gaudy model of a human skull remade in platinum and bedazzled with 8,601 diamonds. The piece contained 1,106.18 carats, £15,000 worth of diamonds with an asking price of £50 mil. The Village Voice in their mock obituary for Hirst explain, "For the Love of God, which—if you believe Andy Warhol was a natural blond—sold to a global "consortium" (that included Hirst himself!) for $100 million." [caption id="attachment_10362" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Lullaby, the Seasons"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_10363" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Lullaby, the Seasons; one of four cabinets"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_10364" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="For the Love of God"][/caption] The worst though is going on right now. The Gagosian art empire which includes 11 galleries in 8 cities on 3 continents is currently displaying 331 of Hirst's spot paintings. They're exactly as they sounds -- a series of colorful spots painted on a grid. This is where a fundamental issue between Hirst and the artistic community as a whole comes into play. Hirst believes that art is in conception, not production. He believes that as he creates the ideas, he is thus the creator. In his early years he did a few of these spot paintings, but definitely nowhere near even a slight majority of the hundreds being shown right now. That was left up to the assistants. Much of his work is completed in a factory a la Warhol, which has led to a series of frauds and a question of the honesty of his art. If it must be left to more skillful hands, what can be said of the artist? [caption id="attachment_10365" align="aligncenter" width="771" caption="Naja Naja, 2000 spot painting"][/caption] Hirst has been widely acclaimed for raising the profile of BritArt, for his originality (although many lesser known artists have cried plagiarism), his shockingly clever showmanship, his new way of creating art and his ability to captivate new audiences. There is an undeniable power to his body of work; his pieces are something that need to be seen once. But, as many of the reviews on the retrospective of his going on at the Tate Modern right now are saying, there might not be any reason to see them twice. The shock value is important, it's an experience for the viewer. But with the repetitive quality of his work, the second time viewer can be left with very little. Once you get beyond the initial terror/shock/revelation, you've got something bright and zany or dead and disgusting but not much else. The Daily Mail once wrote, "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all." [caption id="attachment_10367" align="aligncenter" width="620" caption="Damien Hirst"][/caption] Hirst has become something of a "money spinning novelty factory" as so nicely put by Charles Spencer of the Telegraph in an article where he bemoans falling out of love with Damien. The old themes have become simple status symbols for the mega wealthy, "vulgar bling for the tasteless rich." And with the Tate gift shop hawking £7,000 limited edition wallpaper, £11,000 charm bracelets or even a simple t-shirt for £45 it's clear that commerce is king here. We'll have to wait and see if these inert spectacles continue to draw the cash and wall space they have in the past, but one thing is certain, it's time for a new king.