Damien Hirst & Sophie Calle

Damien Hirst, 1991

‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’ (1991). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Sophie Calle I suppose I should really ask you about the ‘Medicine Cabinets’. Why did you make them?

Damien Hirst They came out of an urge to make art that everybody could believe in, even my mother, people who hate art, modern art…not that she does completely; she tries but she feels it’s above her…I think. I can’t understand why some people believe completely in medicine and not in art, without questioning either.

SC  So you took them from the pharmacy and put them in a gallery?

DH  Exactly, but it took me a long time to realize I could do that.

SC  It’s not as simple as that you arrange them formally. You have little interest in what the drugs actually cure, apart from conceptually as a single idea of curing the body.

DH  I am interested in the drugs and what they do, but not in the same way as the pharmacist. I remember you saying that you didn’t like an art show being called ‘Modern Medicine’ because it implied that something was wrong.

SC  Do you think something is wrong?

DH  On a bad day I do, but I think it’s normal to be up and down, there’s an unbridgeable gap between my desires and how I fulfill them. I want to do a piece called ‘Still Pursuing Impossible Desires’, I am aware of mental contradictions in everything, like: I am going to die and I want to live forever. I can’t escape the fact and I can’t let go of the desire, it’s probably caused by images.

SC  What images?

DH  You know-magazines, TV, advertising, shop-windows, beautiful people, clothes. Images can live forever and we are constantly being convinced that they are real.

SC  You obviously don’t think that drugs can cure this problem, if indeed it is a problem; but do you think that art can?

DH  No, but I’m not going to stop trying. I know its impossible for me to believe it and impossible for me to not. Art seems to me to be about life. If art wasn’t around we’d still have life but if life wasn’t here you could forget about the art so I find it difficult to believe in art. On the one hand I want to be an artist and on the other I want to be realistic. There’s a clash somewhere and a feeling in me that I can’t override; the more I try to escape it the more deviously it evades me, its an inescapable situation. If I follow my ideas about art through to their final conclusion I realize I shouldn’t make art, but I still do.

SC  What do you mean by following your ideas through to their conclusion?

DH  I mean if I want to make art more alive or more confident or more real then I’m trying to make it alive, I should accept that, and the result isn’t art, it’s life; art disappears altogether, a really complicated art-piece would be to use real people and to cook a big meal and invite round some friends. The formal relationships between the people – them getting there, the food and everything- are really complicated, a great piece of art. But it’s infinitely better as a meal than an artwork. So if I believe in art as much as I say I do I’m lying; but I do.

SC  So what you’re saying is that you don’t know why you make art but you know it’s not for logical reasons; is what you’re saying?

DH  You know what I’m saying.

SC  But the people who read this might not, so answer the question. 

DH  I make art; I try to make it alive. I know it’s impossible. I also know it’s impossible for me to not try and I enjoy this dilemma because it doesn’t stop me. How’s that?

SC  Let’s get back to what you said about the arrangements in the ‘Medicine Cabinets’ being formal. That interests me. The arrangements don’t seem formal at first glance and if you say they are then you must have a need to hide these formal decisions or disguise them or deny them.

DH  I arrange them to look exactly like they do in the chemist. I do make decisions about colour and form and all that stuff; I like making these decisions but I’ve always been suspicious of them, like when people think that they amount to something spiritual (the decisions, that is). I just want to get a viewer involved, all viewers. I try to say and deny many things to imply meaning, so that when you work out a reading you implicate yourself. When you’re looking at it, you’re never sure if its accurate, so as a viewer you have to decide what it means or else find another reading... I know the ‘Medicine Cabinets’ work, but in many ways. I like all the readings, if you see them as power structures, a society, or as a metaphor for the human body or even as a comment on capitalism or consumerism or if you see them like a Schwitters or a Cornell or pro-medicine or anti-medicine… they are about all these things, even if you just think it’s weird to see them in a gallery.

SC  It’s not weird to see them in a gallery.

DH  I know, but a lot of people can’t see that and if they think it’s weird, it’s a good reading. They’ll have to work out why.

SC  I remember something you said to me about relationships, that it was possible to talk about everything in terms of relationships.

DH  That there are two interpretations of the word. There is the romantic-emotional, physical-human relationship, like ‘we’re having a relationship’, a good one or a bad one, with another person, and then there’s the very cold formal relationship of things to other things, like art. 

SC  I like relationships.

DH  So do I.

SC I don’t make them last very long.

DH  I’m sure it’s not a problem.

SC  I like emotion without attachment.

DH  I’m greedy, I like everything.

SC  You constantly make spot paintings, some on canvas, some on the wall.  How do they relate to the other works? Do you see them as straight paintings?

DH  I don’t constantly make spot paintings, perhaps seven or eight in the last twelve months, and for me they’re definitely not straight paintings; I see them more like a sculpture of a painting. They are very much art. If you look at things in the real world under the microscope, you find that they are made up of cells. I sometimes imagine that the spot paintings are what my art looks like under the microscope. The difference between art and life is the difference between cells in the real world and the spot paintings. I suppose that’s a bit of a strange thing to imagine; a way I can explain more directly how they relate is to think of them all as titled ‘Isolated Elements for the Purpose of Understanding’. The spots are separated from all the other spots by their boundary yet their colour takes them beyond that boundary and they communicate with each other and the way they are constructed is very uncompromising-the grid structure allows no emotion. I want them to look like they’ve been made by a person trying to paint like a machine. I sometimes feel that I’m trying to be a machine, I’m sure everybody does and even from this negative structure the end result is always a celebration, no matter how I feel.

SC  Do you make formal decisions in these works? By that I mean decisions about what colour should go where or is it random or emotional?

DH  Emotional, but it could very easily be random. The emotional decisions I make, I don’t really give much credibility to. I mistrust them. I think everything is much more fluid than that. I don’t paint browns and purples when I’m feeling somber; well, sometimes I do.

SC  When was the last time you had a really emotional relationship?

DH  With another person?

SC  Of course. We’ve talked about formal relationships a great deal and I’d like you to tell me about your personal relationships. I’m sure they must have something to do with your art…after all they are made by the same person.

DH  Okay, my last relationship, it ended about six moths ago; it lasted about eighteen. I spent the whole time saying ‘I don’t believe in love’ and trying to find a way to believe in it; I was in love but it didn’t work out. She thought I wasn’t the right person to believe in. I wanted realism; she wanted romance. I actually wanted romance within a kind of realism. I cried a bit, laughed a lot, sex was good. I like, no, still like, the way she smells; I like it a lot. I wanted statements like ‘I will love you forever until I don’t’ to replace ‘ I will love you forever’ without losing anything. In fact I wanted them to mean more. I’m saying all this a bit like a robot but it wasn’t like that. I miss the familiarity a lot; she curled her feet round mine when she was asleep.

SC  It sounds romantic.

DH  It’s unavoidable.

SC  Would you like to be back in that relationship?

DH  No.

SC  Do the spot paintings relate to that?

DH  No. Life’s infinitely more exciting than art. I like other people.

SC  Even when they hurt you?

DH  Yes, in retrospect… but if you punched me in the face I’d probably avoid you, for a while at least. I see every spot within each painting as being alone yet together with all the other spots; I can find the pieces sad or happy, or even dumb. I think I’ll always make them. Each painting is named after a drug alphabetically but I probably won’t keep doing it alphabetically. If feels a bit restricting. And they’re a bit childish – a bit like sweets (Smarties) or drugs. I had my stomach pumped as a child because I ate pills thinking they were sweets. So did my brother.

SC  Why is the new series called ‘Internal Affairs’?

DH  After the film, I guess. You know, the one with Richard Gere in it...

SC …where he plays a bad guy, where he’s grey-haired?

DH  Yes, that film, but the series isn’t really… actually I like calling it a series… but anyway, it isn’t really about the film. I just like the idea of the police setting up an independent body to look into their own affairs. I figured I could use that to look into myself, to work out or try to work out why my body is separated from my mind or if indeed it is. I like the near-nonsense of the logic; I also like the possible interpretations of the word affair. I see ‘The Lovers’ piece as a bit adulterous.

SC  So there is the shark, the lovers, the ping-pong ball piece, ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’, the one for the bits of your dead children even if you don’t have them, the formaldehyde tanks, one with sheeps’ heads in, what other pieces are there?

DH  ‘Sometimes I Avoid People’, a double spot painting called ‘The Problems with Relationships’, one called ‘I Want You Because I Can’t Have You’, the two ‘Isolated Elements’ pieces and a cabinet with shells in it that I got from Thailand titled ‘Forms Without Life’ …although I’m thinking of not having that in the series – it’s too beautiful, or the shells are, but I like them because they once contained life.

SC  Why did you make ‘Internal Affairs’ as a series?

DH  I like the way the pieces work with each other. I thought that the ideas involved in ‘Internal Affairs’ needed to be realized in more than one sculpture. It had to be approached from different angles.

SC  The cigarettes in ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’ and the ashtrays and things, what are they about I mean, apart from death and the real world.

DH  Apart from that, I don’t know. I’m not even sure that they mean that.

SC  Do you see smoking and drinking as part of your art?

DH  You think too much.

SC  No I don’t.

DH  No, I know you don’t. I think people need a bit of vice. The horrible things in life make the beautiful things possible and more beautiful. I want a glimpse of an idea of what it’s like to die. I’ll stop when I’m bored or when I’m barking like a dog in the gutter on my hands and knees. I might get hit by a truck before then anyway. Cigarettes are such clinical forms. They are like pills. They have a purity before you smoke them. They’re expensive, dangerous, from the point you light one to when you stub it out, it’s death. After I buy cigarettes brand-new in the shop, my whole involvement is one of destruction they need fire, energy – I can’t think of anything more exciting than that, can you?

SC  Yes I can.

DH  What?

SC  And how do the fly-pieces ‘A Hundred Years’ and ‘A Thousand Years’ relate to ‘Internal Affairs’?

DH  Come on, what’s more exciting?

SC  How do they relate? If at all.

DH  The fly pieces are complete; ‘Internal Affairs’ is full of holes. I think in ‘Internal Affairs’ it’s clumsy because that whole idea of the self being objective and looking into the self is clumsy. The tools that you really need or the keys aren’t there but you can sometimes take a screw out with a knife. I kind of imagine as well that if you looked at a part of ‘A Hundred Years’ under the microscope you’d see a piece from ‘Internal Affairs’ but maybe that’s pushing it a bit. 

SC  Maybe it is. In the pieces that haven’t got dead or living things in them, the steel cases for the ICA that could or couldn’t contain a body, a person, I get the feeling that they are using the viewer more directly. The viewer puts him or herself into the piece against their will and, not physically. It seems a lot closer. I don’t look at it and think people are like flies. The new pieces are more nightmarish than that.

DH  I hope so.

SC  Is there any reason why you haven’t used any living things in ‘Internal Affairs’?

DH  Not really, I think ‘Internal Affairs’ is more personal than that. I think it’s mad for me to think that I will discover anything through ‘Internal Affairs’, but I’m still making the series. Like you said, the viewer becomes the animal, more involved, it gets further away from the metaphor. Tell me what you think is more exciting than smoking?

SC  Living.

SC  What’s the longest time that you’ve held down a relationship with another person?

DH  Five years… –ish

SC  That’s quite a long time. Tell me about it.

DH  It started when I was eighteen and ended when I was twenty-three. I changed a lot during that time. It started off on the ‘tell me what you’re really thinking?’ front, I believe I could and found out I couldn’t. She wanted the truth but wanted me to only want her. Lots of questions like ‘what do you masturbate about?’ (she said she didn’t). I was getting hairs on my chest, it was only a matter of time before I started lying. She wanted the old Damien back, so did I, but it was impossible. I blamed fairy stories. I don’t think it’s as simple as lies and truth. Since then I’ve had relationships where people have said ‘I don’t care what you do, but if I find out about it, you’ve fucked up’; I couldn’t help wondering what they’d been up to. When I ended the five-year one I wanted to die. We were very young. I wanted to be happy with her but couldn’t be. I thought I would eventually marry her. I don’t anymore. I’ve got a lot of letters; I read one once, it choked me up. I can’t read them, I can’t throw them away, I will one day. I’ve since found out that she’s got rid of hers. Actually I think I was sad about losing myself.

SC  How do you see ‘In & Out of Love’ in terms of your relationships, your experiences of love?

DH  ‘In & Out of Love’ is the most complicated work I’ve made so far, it’s about love and realism, dreams, ideals, symbols, life and death. I worked out many possible trajectories for these things, like the way the real butterfly can destroy the idea (birthday-card) kind of love; the symbol exists apart from the real thing. Or the butterflies still being beautiful even when dead. All these things are completely thrown off balance by a comparison I tried to make between art and life, in the ‘Upstairs’ and ‘Downstairs’ installations, a crazy thing to do when in the end it’s all art.

SC  But that doesn’t answer my question of how it relates to your personal relationships.

DH  Well, only in the way that my ideas about relationships are based on all the relationships I’ve ever had but not any more directly than that. I like the way that you can divide relationships into two piles; in and out of love.  I’ve made a wall piece that relates to the show; it’s called ‘Untitled Wall Drawing Without Emotion’. It consists of two geometrically worked-out love-hearts, painted in red gloss directly onto the wall, one broken. 

SC  So you don’t include directly personal elements into the work?

DH  I try to make it more universal than that. If I feel like I’ve been stubbed out now and again, like a cigarette, and I’m alive in the world today, then other people must feel like that and I want them to think about it because to me it’s important. If I was asking for sympathy, I wouldn’t want it.

SC  What about your family?

DH  I love them.

SC  But you don’t believe in love.

DH It’s a different kind. I can remember two things, one my grandmother said to me and one my mother said to me. I was about sixteen in the supermarket with my mother, it all seemed very alien to me (the supermarket and everyone’s acceptance of it). I said to my mother ‘I don’t really feel like I’m a part of all this’ and she said ‘Neither do I’; I realized that no-one did. And in a conversation with my grandmother, I said ‘I still feel as confused as when I was seven’ and she said ‘So do I’. Same thing. But you know what Brancusi said?

SC  What?

DH  ‘When we are no longer children we are already dead’.

SC  You work sometimes seems cold and calculated and to talk to you, you seem more emotional than that.

DH  I like both possibilities. It depends on who I’m with. 

SC  And when you make art, who are you with?

DH  No-one.

SC  I have a statement that I’d like to end this conversation with; it’s one of yours. I hoped you would have said it before but you didn’t. It’s something you told me that you’d considered for a title and decided against: ‘I sometimes feel I have nothing to say, I often want to communicate this’.

DH  I might still make that piece.

November 2 1991


A few hours after meeting you for the first time, I asked you to send me a love letter. After a silence of several months, I received a passionate six page letter. By the second page I had forgotten that I hardly knew the sender, yet I already believed all the words you used. Now you ask me to interview you. I have never done it and I don’t want to do it now so I have to refuse. Since you knew what I wanted to read when you sent me the love letter (that I haven’t burnt), perhaps you could ask yourself questions that I would have asked in an interview. 

Good luck.

Love, Sophie C.

November 12 1991


I have received your interview. Can I ask you a small change? When you ask me for the last time what I think is more exciting than smoking, let me again not reply and delete my answer, ‘living’.

Love and thanks for being so cooperative,

Sophie Calle

This interview was originally published on the occasion of Damien Hirst’s first solo exhibition in a public gallery: ‘Internal Affairs’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 1991 (Jay Jopling/ICA).

The interview was fabricated by Hirst on the request of Sophie Calle.

Sophie Calle – A Biography

Born in 1953 in Paris, Sophie Calle is a writer, a conceptual artist, a photographer, a movie director, even detective. She might be a little of each, according to the characters that she interprets, the rituals she imagines, the parts of her life that she tells and the feelings that she shares. The artist often explores the investigations methods and her work, most of the time, consists of the association between photography and text.

Sophie Calle creates her own game rules, in order to “Make life better”, to give life a structure. For her first project in 1979 she decided to follow a stranger, and this chase brought her to Venice. ‘Suite Venitienne’ is the result of this shadow. It is frequently only in a secondary way that Calle leads her work into the art sphere. Her installations are the conclusion and the effect of situations which are entirely staged by the artist and lived in an autobiographical way.