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A Power To Amaze

Richard Shone 2001

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Every so often in British art a figure comes along and enthrals a generation. In the early 1990s, it was Augustus John; in the 1930s, Henry Moore; in the 1950s, Francis Bacon and in the following decade David Hockney.

This swift rise to fame comes about through a manner of working that touches a contemporary nerve and a style of life that reflects the changing sensibilities of a given period. If work shocks or disturbs by its challenge to prevailing practice or taste, the spotlight is even more glaring. In the early 1990s, Damien Hirst was the chosen one, a media natural who combined toughness with teasing humour, high professionalism with a truth to himself that brooked no compromise. He produced a sequence of extraordinary works, organised memorable exhibitions became engulfed by the attentions of the media, both trendy and antagonistic, in a way that was unprecedented in e social history of British art. The culminating moment came with his winning the Turner Prize – 1995, an event celebrated by his peers and greeted by a leader the Daily Telegraph as a ‘disgusting and odious scandal’. By the time of his inclusion in ‘Sensation’ at the Royal Academy in 1997 – an opportunity for many people who had heard of Hirst but never encountered his work, to see as it were, in the flesh – his pre-eminence was made dramatically clear in a group of outstanding works. But Hirst had already drawn away from the feeding-frenzy of the press, took time off from the hitherto unceasing round of international exhibitions and let the celebrity spotlight shift perceptibly onto others. He became a more solitary figure, only pushed briefly back into the fray when his monumental ‘Hymn’ , shown at The Saatchi Gallery last summer, was found to have its origins in a commercially produced educational toy. This incident once more highlighted a recurrent note in the criticism not only of Hirst's work but that of others of his generation – it’s appropriating closeness to daily life, as though this disqualified it from serious ambition or attention. Detractors feel they are riding the moral uplands when they tell us that Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ was only a cast, Michael Landy’s ‘Market’ only crates and stalls, Tracey Emin’s bed just a bed and Hirst’s lamb just a lamb (‘Away from the Flock’). Conversely, for example, the most ‘realistic’ (i.e. closest to 'real-life') work in ‘Sensation’. Ron Mueck’s ‘Dead Dad’, was a sure-fire favourite, partly because it was so patently handcrafted. This discrimination between found and artist-made object, the former suggesting lazy cynicism, the latter a skilful engagement sure to reap spiritual dividends, is an old and tedious opposition. It has bedevilled British reaction to certain strands of modernism from the beginning of the last century. The success of all Hirst’s best works, whatever the origin of their components, lies in the brooding, startling, provocative transformation he has effected of his chosen materials. 

Hirst is essentially a romantic artist, amazed by the sweep of life, from its grandest themes to its grittiest detail. He is notorious, even in his generation, for his preoccupation with mortality and the easy loss of life. Although the shark ('The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living') fills us with dread, it is dead; the pills and potions of his medicine cabinets become poison: the brightly designed ashtray, a graveyard. This preoccupation with the continuing presence of death-in-life has inevitably attracted the dismissive criticism that he is a sensationalist, a latter-day exponent of Hammer House aesthetics. In fact he is one of the least cynical, least defeatist personalities. His work is essentially life-affirming, even at its most chilling moments. 

Commentators frequently isolate Hirst from his generation. In part, this is attributable to his immense fame, but it also suggests that his work is unmistakable, full of recognizable signature tunes and idiosyncratic personal elements. But it should be stressed that Hirst has always been hyper-receptive to the work of his contemporaries and forebears – in film, music, television and books as much as in art – and that he emerged alongside a group of artists known for their collaborative spirit and exchange of ideas. British art preens itself on its isolated figures – Blake, Spencer, Bacon – enjoying such supposedly home-made dishes with a John Bullish xenophobia. But Hirst cannot be pigeon-holed in this lazy way. As his interviews and conversation demonstrate, he is unusually alert to what goes on around him and his work shares numerous characteristics with his contemporaries – a fascination with the loss of life and the hairline divide between living and dying; with states of flux and transformation; with desire and frustration; inner order and outer chaos (and vice versa). Going further, I would say that in spite of Hirst's use of unusual materials in unlikely juxtaposition, the perceptions and ideas they embody are in fact unextraordiary and have long been the stuff of art.

Two obvious strengths of Hirst’s work are a frontal simplicity of presentation and an ability to invest objects with a direct metamorphical charge. They are, of course, inseparable but when one or the other is out of balance, less convincing or peripheral elements come to the fore. With his propensity for grisly and unsettling images, which could easily spill out into the world of special effects, Hirst walks a tightrope between challenging subject and cooling presentation. Such rebarbative content often deflects attention from work that is restrained, even formally conservative compared with others of his generation. Ideas for works may teem in his mind, but finding palpable solutions needs detachment as well as bravado. In this sense, his work abounds in the tension of opposites. He is distinctly urban in sensibility but known for images taken from the natural world: often bleakly fatalistic in effect. the work has its mordant humour, a blackish mortuary chuckle that is embedded in its making: invariably austere in his use of manufactured elements, he can use colour that is brash or sweetly cloying. In interview he is challengingly paradoxical, verbalising antitheses in order to liberate meaning, even if it suggests contradiction. ‘I have a double self’, Stendhal once said, ‘a good way of not making mistakes’. Almost from the start, Hirst has made the distinction between ‘delicious, desirable images of completely undesirable and unacceptable things’ (and has inevitably drawn on the precedents of Bosch, Goya, Gericault and Bacon, as well as gruesome medical photographs). Most of his successful works have achieved an equilibrium or reconciliation between the two. Hirst's formal vocabulary is familiar and simple. By this 1 mean he uses known methods of presentation ranging from past art to museum and shop display. Classic American Minimalism – boxes, grids, stacks. Repetition – influenced him almost from the beginning but with the difference that his massive glass cases are not self-referential but work as containers to hold the event within. ‘A Thousand Years’ takes place in two adjoining steel and glass boxes, allowing the viewer maximum exposure to the futile natural cycle inside, which is dependent on the hour holes cut into the interior glass panel. The glass frontages of the ‘Medicine Cabinets’ and of ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left)’ obviously fulfil their original function in pharmacies and museum or trophy display. They are unthreatening the glass of the formaldehyde-filled tank in ‘The Physical Impossibility...’ has a much more fearsome charge to it, the tiger-shark inside reminding us of glass’s protective role as well as its fragility and potential danger (akin to the window of the diner through which we see but cannot hear Robert de Niro in ‘Goodfellas’ planning unspeakable acts). At the same time, the huge tank has its origins in the ubiquitous domestic aquarium, a simple formal precedent that works into the nervous system of the viewer. Most disconcerting is the lamb in ‘Away From the Flock’, one of Hirst’s simplest inventions and most complexly allusive images. The animal's very woolliness seems at odds with the formaldehyde solution, its open-air gambols forever, halted by the tightly to contemplate it in all its Pre-Raphaelite detail. We are made acutely aware of its poignant vitality and obvious religious and sentimental connotations by the condition of its being buried alive in fluid.

Through the 1990s, images of diseased, dying and slaughtered cattle have assailed us in the media, most recently in the flaming pyres of animals during the foot- and-mouth crisis. ‘Medical’ experimentation on animals and animal cloning, recycled feed, BSE and the issue of cruel rural 'sports' have forced many people into rethinking their views on animal welfare, meat consumption and the relation of countryside tradition to contemporary sensibilities. Even domestic pets became the subject of anxious enquiry. As chief exporter of infected animal feed in the 1980s and 1990s, Britain is seen, almost certainly, as the source of BSE, a by now global affliction. With all this in mind, Hirst's works, mostly from the mid-1990s, of halved and dissected cows and pigs, take on an inescapable resonance. They are by no means programmatic; Hirst is no eco-warrior, no courier of catastrophe pointing a finger from his rural retreat in Devon. But plugged into collective fears and frustrations, he articulates them as an artist in prescient images.

There are some themes that Hirst leaves to others – sexuality is one, socio-political commentary is another.  Both need some figural input that Hirst usually avoids.  Nevertheless, if rarely portrayed directly, the human figure is an implied presence though much of his work, whether as spectator, voyeur or as an essential, if absent, ingredient as in 'The Acquired Inability to Escape' (1991) or later 'Contemplating a Self Portrait as a Pharmacist' (1998). The naked or semi-naked body has been a continuous image in recent British art, evocative of trauma, sexuality, and transcendence. It has rarely been used for its erotic or sensual properties: these tend to subsumed under scatological Carry On humour peculiar to Britain. But as a vehicle for vulnerability and victimisation it has recent history that is copiously theatrical while at the same time seeming to be objective, at one remove from life. 

Hirst’s ‘Hymn’ (1999-2005) was his first major representation of the human body, accurately based, as noted earlier, on a commercially available Humbrol toy of a semi-skinned male designed as an anatomical teaching aid.  Hirst's greatly increased painted bronze bears much relation to the original does a Nile-side Pyramid to similarly shaped piece of Lego. 'Hymn' is best approached from the unskinned right side, a heroic athlete from the Foro Italica. As you come round to the front, the skin has been removed from half the head and all the trunk (the sculpture stops at mid-calf, rising from its shiny black plinth). revealing musculature and organs upholstering the skeleton beneath in High Street furnishing style. This is no Ecce Homo or 'Angel of the North': Hirst has never satisfied those seekers after spiritual uplift for whom so much contemporary art is thus a closed book. Here is automaton, phallus, fetish, specimen and god. In spite of the figure's homage to the sculpture of the ancient world, its robotic eye and gift-shop colour, Hirst manages to invest it grandeur while simultaneously writing the obituary of scientific certitude.

The archetypal forms and simplicity of approach of much of Hirst's three-dimensional work are also found in his painting. Hirst started as a painter and collagist and has always been a compulsive draftsman. While his sculpture has garnered the headlines, his continuing activity as a painter has been less scrutinised. His first notable paintings, in which butterflies adhered to monochome paint surfaces, were part of his spectacular installation ‘In and Out of Love’ (1991). Since then two extensive series – spots and spins, executed by assistants – have become his trademark. As might be expected from Hirst, they investigate two basic forms of modernist abstraction – idealised geometry and gestural freedom, both taken at their most extreme, interrogatory point. The multi­coloured 'Pharmaceutical' paintings, produced over a period of several years, are based on an infinitely extendable grid over a white ground of single-colour circles that vary in size from painting to painting but not within a single work, Their effect seems to rebuke the `rationality' of their making for they are astonishingly different in impact, ranging from toy-town blandness to mesmerising complexity, from static austerity to an engrossing field of shifting movement. Snooker balls, traffic lights, logos, cellular formations, early Gerhard Richter, photographic pixillation, even the coloured 'tester' spots that appear along the edge of a sheet of newsprint – all these have fed into or emanate from paintings that are salutary in their contentlessness. The spin paintings, from 1994 onwards. are again the result of an extremely basic idea of dropping pigment onto a circular support laid flat on a motorised table. Their chancy spontaneity is in direct contrast to the paint-by­-numbers regularity of the 'Pharmaceutical' series (both aspects reflected in the works' individual titles). But they have a garrulous, infantile presence that strikes a note of relief after so much so-called 'good' painting by grown-ups. 

Hirst is now 36, a critical age for artists moving forwards from rampant early invention. His formative years as an artist were spent in the public eye and every new work he showed was met with frantic attention. He has already taken his place in the history books and surveys as the leading spirit in British art in the last decade.  If he has had little direct influence and no imitators (save in the ever- imitative media), his work has served instead as a yardstick by which to measure the ambitions of others in a generation of high-profile artists. This position has been attained through an exemplary belief in what he has been doing – the reinterpretation of familiar feelings and perceptions in a striking visual language. Though much of his work is shot through with the dystopian character of the times, it is also celebratory in its power to amaze.

'A Power to Amaze' originally published in Damien Hirst, 'Pictures from the Saatchi Gallery' (Booth-Clibborn Editions/Saatchi Gallery, 2001). Copyright © Richard Shone, 2001. 

Richard Shone — A Biography

Richard Shone is a writer and art historian whose books and articles have mostly focused on modern British art. He is currently Editor of The Burlington Magazine. He came to know Hirst and his work in 1988-89 and has written about the artist on several occasions, notably in the catalogue to 'Sensation', the Royal Academy exhibition held in 1997.