John Gray and Damien Hirst, 2006

‘An Unreasonable Fear of Amputation, Death and Dying’ (1999). Photographed by Gareth Winters © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012.

John Gray  I liked the long quotation from Hobbes in one of the things you did. It was that quote, you know, about how life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and all that. But you said you were thinking of a new piece of work on Hobbes.

Damien Hirst  The Natural History Museum phoned me up and asked me if they could use my freezer to store a huge, twenty-five-foot basking shark. I said yes, and they brought it over, on the back of a flatbed truck, frozen solid. Then they decided that it was too big for them, so they asked if I wanted it. I don’t normally get things that big, but I just started thinking about that kind of big, nasty, and horrible thing. It looks a bit like a monster from the deep. I thought that Leviathan would be great title for it, just in a black tank with smoked-glass panels. I’ve done a few drawings for it. Leviathan wasn’t a great title for Hobbes’s book at the time, but it’s kind of good now.

JG  I think Hobbes meant a mythical monster of some kind.

DH  Or some great monster in the mind of a man as much as up from depths of the sea.

JG  What occurred to me, when I read it, was that an awful lot of your work, including the drawings, is about death.

DH  I like to think it isn’t about death.

JG  It is about death. 

DH  I always say it’s about life, but I don’t know, I suppose it does dwell on the dark side.

JG  One of your most powerful works is about the impossibility of conceiving death ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Or talking about it, anyway.

DH  It’s like being given only white and trying to comprehend black. It’s close to impossible.

JG  You know what went through my mind then? Heidegger says, “Animals don’t know about death; only humans do.” And it struck me that, looking at your work where death somehow figures, you might almost say that although we talk about death a lot, we know no more about it than animals do.

DH  It’s more our fear of a rude removal of life, isn’t it?

JG  Exactly –“a rude removal of life.” We can’t even imagine that. So, when I see the medical instruments that you use, it seems to me that you’re trying to show how uncanny things become when we try to think about death or talk about death, because we can’t really.

DH  Death does become surreal. It’s like a kind of dance, isn’t it? You can get a glimpse of it. It leaves you with a way of coming to terms with something, hovering about on the edges of it. Hopefully, thinking about it makes you live your life more fully.

JG  It certainly makes you live it in a different way. Doesn’t life become stranger in some ways?

DH  I’ve always thought about it a lot. When I sit beside my son in bed, reading him a story, I always think about the roles being reversed, with me sitting there in bed, dying, and him sitting at my bedside. I thought everyone thinks like that, but then I said to somebody and they said they don’t like that, so I don’t know what’s normal.

JG  Do you know the joke about the two babies who are born in the same hospital and put in the same room? Just after birth, they’re lying there in the same room, and then they are taken away by their parents and live their lives and, by an incredible twist of fate, they’re both in their last hours and they end up in adjacent beds in the same room again. There’s a long, long silence, then one turn to the other and says, “So how was it?”

DH  (Laughs.) That’s a beauty. “How was it for you?”

JG  Death seems a very heavy thing to talk about, but you can’t really not think about it or talk about it, and yet we can’t think about it all. But you do.

DH  People use it to sell us everything. In every Hollywood movie, there are thousands of deaths and dying and blood and gore and horror, but you use it in art and people are suddenly shocked. People love “death,” they just don’t like real death, and just because art is supposed to be real then I guess that death in art can feel unpalatable.

JG  Yes, it’s puzzling. The other thing that your work has done for me is to generate this feeling of the uncanny in ordinary scenes. Death does that, and so does ageing.

DH  It’s the context. When a tree falls down in the street, suddenly it’s a massive thing. Yet you have walked past it every day and have never really seen it, because you get used to it. You can take something and just do very little to it, and it completely changes everything. I’m always on the lookout for things like that. As an artist, there’s a concrete visual language that exists for me, which is sometimes universal. I feel I can communicate with that more than with anything else. I remember seeing dog shit in the street in New York, with a cigarette butted out in it that had lipstick on it.

JG  What a wonderful image.

DH  I thought to myself, “What the fuck is that all about?” You wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t get this image out of my mind. What is it trying to say? It was on Park Avenue. For some reason, some woman couldn’t butt her cigarette out on the street so she just stuck it into dog shit. It’s unbelievable. So I’m always looking for things like that, whatever they mean. Like I always thought it would be great if you went into a supermarket and got a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber and put it in someone’s trolley. Then they get to the checkout and they deny that these items are theirs. Just by denying it, this contextual thing becomes fucking hysterical. Once you put two things together like that, like a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber, it’s like Picasso’s bike seat and handlebars, the unexpected sex of it. And the denial. I love things like that.

When you put most things together formally in unexpected ways, you can arrive at the big issues: sex, death, life, religion, beauty, science. Love is kind of it. There are no other big subjects, really, and you can cover it all with a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber.

JG  I sometimes wonder if modern societies avoid death because it’s just not there, because it happens in particular places, where no one’s present. We just have no contact with it all.

DH  It is Beckett who said, “Death doesn’t require us to make a day free”? I think that’s the problem. It’s very difficult to plan anything, but you’ve got to plan. (To the Reaper:) “Let me just finish this.”

JG  And then “finish this painting,” “finish this drawing,” finish anything. It’s amazing that most of us can live our entire lives without ever having even vicarious contact with death. Because you never see dead people.

DH  It’s all swept away, tidied up. 

JG  And you never see anybody dying. So it’s even more mysterious for us than it was previously. Because in the past reactions probably weren’t that different from animals looking at other animals dying. If you read early Greek poems, they say “the breath’s gone out of them.” They’re just baffled. But then the body does make some sort of sense of it, if you are actually allowed to deal with the body: it putrefies and things eat it. Death’s even more mysterious these days because everything has been sanitized to such a degree. I read a great sentence the other day: “All utopians hate dirt.” 

DH  Of course they do.

JG  And getting rid of dirt…dead bodies get very dirty very quickly.

DH  Very quickly. And they get heavy.

I remember seeing a homeless guy in a doorway, black with dirt. I was thinking it was kind of disgusting, but then I looked at him again and thought he looked really cosy. Once you’ve got to that level and you don’t mind the smell, you’re in there with it. You’re probably a lot more comfortable than in a totally spotless kitchen, with your totally spotless kids.

JG  It’s how humanity must have lived for tens of thousands of years.

DH  We must like dirt.

JG  Well, I must say, my anti-utopianism doesn’t extend too far, in that respect, because I don’t like dirt too much.

DH  I wouldn’t want to lie in a bed of offal. But I could feel cozy in a grimy doorway. I’ve always felt that smell is a really powerful thing, especially in sculpture. You get beautiful colors when something’s decaying that you can’t see if it’s there in the room in front of you, because of the smell. When I did see id it’s there in the room in front of you, because of the smell. When I did ‘A Thousand Years’ with a real cow’s head, people walked in and walked straight out again because of the smell. They couldn’t engage with it.

But even worse was ‘Party Time’, an eight-foot-diameter ashtray filled with fifteen bin bags of real cigarette butts (see also ‘Horror at Home’). When you walked into the gallery, you had to walk out. It was like the most horrible morning after a party you could ever imagine. It stank; it was repulsive. I had to reduce the smell, because I didn’t want people walking in, being immediately repulsed, and walking out; I wanted people to see, be drawn to it, and then look over the edge and get the smell. So I sprayed hundreds of bottles of hairspray onto it to take the smell out of the whole space. It was like buying a car from a smoker, or something else secondhand: you never get rid of the smell. 

JG  The brutality of smell.

DH  It is incredibly powerful. Even on TV, when people turn away from something, even though there’s no actual smell on TV, you can almost get a whiff of it. Like when they go “ugh” and they pull that face.

JG  Do you think you’re trying to stop people turning away, or trying to get them to turn in a different direction?

DH  I think you have to step over the boundaries to know where they are. I think that it’s important to face the inevitable. Life’s natural – you know it is – so death must be natural. There’s no escaping it, and it’s got to be normal. With art, I started off with 1950s abstract expressionism, “paint how you feel” kind of stuff, and then I moved into a sort of minimalism – you know, like Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, that kind of purity – which is another utopian idea. But then, as soon as I attached myself to all the death stuff, I tried to make it minimal, but it became romantic, which was not what I was looking for.

JG  But it’s a kind of elusive and dry romanticism.

DH  Butterflies are pretty romantic.

JG  Well, they’re also natural.

DH  I always felt that art was about life. All my favourite artworks, like ‘Saturn Devouring One of His Children’ by Goya, and Francis Bacon, deal with this, so I think I’ve always felt that I need to be addressing this kind of stuff. The horror in Bacon is biological. It’s like touching something.

JG   I’m not a painter or an artist, but what I think when I look at this is that there must be much more caressing of that horror when you paint it or draw it than if you photograph it. Because when you paint it or draw it, you’re doing it over and over. Bacon says, “You paint or draw what you can’t or don’t want to photograph?

DH  Yeah, the greatest paintings are definitely that. It is about the things that unhinge you or disturb you or disturb you; you could almost come face-to-face with God in a painting, which you couldn’t do in a photograph. Maybe you could. I suppose it’s like looking at your reflection in the dark. A lot of things can come out of the dark–and you can get the dark in a painting, but you can’t really get that same kind of darkness in a photograph.

JG  But you’re also actually physically doing something when you paint or draw, which you’re not doing when you take a photograph of something. I mean, you might spend a long time thinking about it.

DH   Painting’s got a better process of time involved as well. To work and work and work like that, eventually only to create a glimpse of something, is a great thing to do.

JG  This is a human life – take it or leave it: your work’s like that.

DH  Maybe that’s what “less is more” means.

JG  Yeah. Mind you, there’s something of the atheist saint in Beckett I don’t like. It’s always like the last act of sanctity, of holiness, giving up a belief in God and being saintly. I don’t like that. There’s a nice Zen story, where this man meditates for fifty years, and as he walks through the woods, all the birds land on his shoulders and the antelopes don’t run away, and the Zen master says to him, “Yeah, that’s great. Well, when they start running aay and avoiding you, you’ll be enlightened.” In other words, if you have too much enlightenment, it’s like a piece of shit on the end of your nose. Still, there’s something in Beckett, some sort of pale version of the Christian virtue, which I don’t like.

DH  Yeah, you can’t avoid it, I guess

'Leviathan' originally published in Damien Hirst 'Corpus: Drawings 1986-2006' (Other Criteria/Gagosian Gallery, 2006). 'Leviathan' by John Gray. Copyright © 2006, John Gray, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.

John Gray — A Biography

John Gray is the author of, among other books, STRAW DOGS: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals and THE IMMORTALIZATION COMMISSION: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death.