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Hans Ulrich Obrist and Damien Hirst 2007
'Away from the Flock' (1994). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012
Hans Ulrich Obrist You often work in series.
Damien Hirst I’ve always liked series. I remember looking at Robert Motherwell’s painting when I was young. Do you know ‘Splashes by the Sea’? I thought that was great.
You get some sort of security from the repetition of a series. If you say something twice, it’s pretty convincing. It’s more convincing than if you say it once. [Laughs].
I think it’s also an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death. I’ve thought quite a lot about it. In a way, that’s why smoking is so sexy. Apart from the addiction, the attraction is that there’s nothing certain in life and things change all the time, but you can always rely on something like a cigarette – which punctuates your whole existence time and time again – to be the same. It’s almost like you’re cheating death. But it’s killing you, so then, smoking becomes even sexier. People are afraid of change, so you create a kind of belief for them through repetition. It’s like breathing. So I’ve always been drawn to series and pairs. A unique thing is quite a frightening object.
HUO A sort of umbilical cord in your work, which is more than a series, is the idea of the aquarium. You’ve spoken about that in many interviews before, but I thought it would be interesting if we could touch on it briefly. It revisits Minimalism but recharges it with a very different content. So how did this aquarium idea start?
DH I’ve always had a thing about glass. I had a magic mushroom experience very early on where I got a bit freaked out about being symmetrical. I imagined I had a sheet of glass running right through me. Glass became quite frightening. I think glass is quite a frightening substance. I always try and use it. I love going around aquariums, where you get a jumping reflection so that the things inside the tank move; glass becomes something that holds you back and lets you in at the same time. Its’ an amazing material; it’s something solid yet ephemeral. It’s dangerous as well. I just love glass. And it’s a way to separate people but engage them. You can invite them in and keep them away at the same time. It’s probably my favourite material, glass. And water. No, my favourite material is water and then glass. But glass and water are very similar. Glass in water is amazing; glass disappears if you put it in water.
HUO And there’s the series of animals in formaldehyde.
DH ‘Natural History’ that was called. I just imagined a zoo of dead animals. I keep thinking that I’m done with that, but then I recently had the idea for the crucifixions, which I think are fucking brilliant; I have to do that. I think there’s a narrative within those now. I was also thinking about doing the Stations of the Cross as fourteen cabinet pieces. I don’t really think they’re a series. I’m not sure.
HUO If one thinks about all the different series, one can see your whole work as a sort of open system from which new series start and others stop.
DH I think they’re aspects of personality. It’s shit to go on the wall at the end of the day. You’re decorating apartments a lot of the time; it’s something to go over the sofa. I remember my friend Joe Strummer said to me that a long time ago, cavemen used to go out and smash buffalo over the head and bring them back and cook them and eat them. Then at some point there were are a couple of guys who got their hands in the blood and put something on the cave wall. It was just about making the cave nice. Art came out of the desire to make your habitat more interesting. I love that. Or even music – the guy who started banging bones together and the other guys said, ‘We like the sound of that and we like the way the walls look. Why don’t you guys stay her and we’ll get the meat for you, so at least when we get back to eat the meat we’ll be in a cool place?’ So I’ve always loved that kind of view of art: that art is a reflection of life. I think there’s an infinite number of ways to get to the same point. Every artwork is fundamentally the same thing.
HUO Some of your work links to display features in science museums, and other works have more to do with scientific formulas. I’m interested in this relationship to science. Can you talk about that?
DH I just hitched a ride on science – or not really science – it was medicine. It’s just collage, isn’t it? Art is always very simple, or good art is always very simple. I took science in the way that Picasso took the bike seat and the handlebars and made the bull’s head. I mean, there’s nothing complicated about it. Science seemed to be getting people’s attention and art didn’t, so I hitched a ride on that. Or people were believing in science and questioning art, so I just took it very directly and used the science. It’s been a very rich vein for me. It also partly came from David Cronenberg’s film ‘Dead Ringers’.
HUO ‘Dead Ringers’ was the original of all the ‘Medicine Cabinet’ works?
DH Yes. Jeremy Irons as a gynaecologist, in the red fucking robes, and those weird gynaecological instruments that were like art. It was that real high-end medical stuff. And I saw some dark, smoked cabinets in there and I thought, ‘Fucking hell. They look great.’ And so I made some myself. That, combined with seeing Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, and all that Neo-Geo stuff and Kurt Schwitters. I was thinking, ‘What would Kurt Schwitters be doing if he was alive today?’ Bless him, he’d be down the pub. He’d be a priest.
HUO I think he might just have continued his Merzbau.
DH Yes. He’d have finished it.
HUO Because nothing could really stop him from doing it.
DH Only one thing.
DH Death, yes. Don’t you hate that guy?
DH Death. No, I like Schwitters. I just fucking hate death. He’s such a dumb guy.
HUO It’s a dull fact. Leon Golub called death, ‘A dull fact’.
DH If it’s true. I don’t know if it’s true. [Pause] Come on, it can’t be true!
HUO It’s a rumour.
DH Elvis is still around. And sex doesn’t really make babies. How the fuck could that work?
HUO Another rumour.
DH Yes, it’s a rumour. It’s bullshit. I heard a great quote by George Burns, the American comedian. Somebody asked him in an interview when he was about 96, ‘What do you think about death?’ And he said, ‘It’s been done’. [Laughs].
HUO [Laughs] Great! We were talking about science.
DH Yes, the whole story of it, alchemy and everything; it’s fantastic. Trying to understand the world, looking for the keys to understanding: that’s what artists do as well in some ways. It’s like God should be, the way they sell you the pills, the forms, the utopia, the hope, the cure. We’ve come a long way since quack doctors.
HUO Were you inspired by science museums?
DH Yes. I love them: science museums, natural history museums, anything that takes your mind off death, really, or focuses your mind on it. I love all that hands-on stuff. It’s great when you feel that you’re being entertained and also educated. I’ve always felt if you could do that with art it would be great.
HUO I’m interested in finding out more about how you work, in terms of the collection, archives and studios. Picasso said one should never give up a studio: you should shut the door and take a new one and forget about it and accumulate more studios. Each time we’ve met, you’ve mentioned another place and it seems as if you’ve got lots of studios all over the world.
DH I think you should definitely shut them down. Somebody once said to me, ‘Which bit do you like the most? You must love it when you’ve got all these big machines and tanks and people and they’re all in the gallery piling stuff in and there’s all this chaos.’ I said, ‘No. I fucking hate it.’ I like it when it’s all one and there’s just a perfect exhibition at the end. Picasso was obsessed with fame, he wasn’t he? He thought every time he wiped his ass people would find it important. I’m more convinced by the Beatles than Picasso these days.
HUO Why the Beatles more than Picasso?
DH They had much more influence on the people around them at the time, and they were struggling with truth in a much deeper way. They grew up in public and they went through so many changes. Picasso is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, especially the late Picasso. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist... When I was a kid, I just loved the Beatles. I think I wanted to be the Beatles or something. It’s funny because I was from a different generation. I wasn’t around when the Beatles were around. I was born in 1965, so I witnessed it second hand, in the same way, I suppose, that you witness Picasso second hand. And then I was too young to be a punk. A lot of our generation missed the punk thing that really split everything wide open; we came in the wake of it. We were like punk artists. Some of us have a lot of the attitude. I always thought; especially when you look at the Beatles and the artists who were around at the time – Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake – that the Beatles really made a different. The artists, especially compared to the Americans, didn’t really.
HUO Warhol made a difference.
DH Yes, it was Warhol and the Beatles. With Picasso, maybe the talent is a little too apparent. I don’t know. Picasso became his own idea of himself; he created a persona and he lived it, whereas the Beatles split at the height of their fucking success, which is a phenomenal thing to do. They just got sick of it; they said, ‘We’re not going on tour any more.’ They were never just going to take the money. Which is great for people from a working-class background.
HUO Warhol is in your collection. Can you talk a little bit about him?
DH Warhol’s great. You can’t argue with it. It’s simple, isn’t it? And visually great. It’s easy, cheap, simple. He certainly doesn’t over-complicate things. I think that’s good. And in terms of consumerism and all that sort of stuff, art has been in a constant battle for hundreds of years with every other kind of image-making. We’re fighting it today. The paintings that I’m doing now are about that battle. The paintings came out of the time when the newspapers went colour. When newspapers go colour, it’s almost like you get information overload and image overload. Newspapers are about facts and truth, and you believe you get a true view of the world from these images when you don’t: they’re completely fake.
HUO Which paintings are you referring to?
DH The realistic ones I’ve been doing. Like the ones in the Gagosian show this autumn. It’s like taking one of those images and trying to make it into a painting, because paintings you believe and images you don’t, so you want to throw away the images. What’s happened though, is that we believe in images.
HUO How are these paintings made? Are they done by people who work with you, like in Warhol’s Factory?
DH For two years I worked with a sculptor called Nick Lumb. I was giving him these little photographic images and saying, ‘I want it to look like that.’ But I didn’t really know what I wanted. We didn’t get any results – well, we did, but they were horrible. We were trying to do it with airbrushing. I kept going back to these paintings and hating them. And after all the airbrushing, after two or three years, we just went back to oil paint. When you’ve learnt all that discipline, the oil paint really cracks back in. They’re still not there, but all I know is they’re getting better. They’re getting closer to what I want. I’ve been setting up my own photographs. I’ve taken photographs of diamonds. I’ve been doing photographs of the Beatles; just creating this mass of images that keep piling up. But it’s real chaos because I don’t know what I want. I keep stopping and starting. I keep thinking about Goya and Soutine, and I sort of imagine that at the end of my life I’ll just fucking paint. I’ll be fucking sat in a tiny little room with one light bulb doing self-portraits on my own. There’s a lot of complications with what I do now. You have to be young, you have to be fit, to run the operation that I run, and I certainly don’t think I can get old running an operation like this.
HUO So the operation will have to reduce?
DH Yes. It will have to. If you’ve got people working for you, and they’re getting older and you keep replacing them with younger people, and you’re getting old too, it’s going to be mental. But if you keep everybody working for you and they get old, eventually they’re not going to be able to move big things around. So instead of getting rid of them younger, why not make the works smaller? You could make smaller things that they can carry. You’d end up with this fucking studio of old people carrying little things around – ‘Can you make it in wood, please? I can’t carry the steel.’ It would be good if you could do that. I love the idea of a company, an old-fashioned company. I’m just an old-fashioned boy at heart, really.
HUO In some ways it does feel like a new model of Warhol’s Factory. But this idea of revisiting painting is interesting. You could get rid of all these structures without concentrating on painting. Why painting?
DH It’s like, ‘Why books?’ It’s just a great way to convey a message. It’s a brilliant illusion. It’s very simple; the illusion that something two-dimensional is three-dimensional evokes emotions in people.
HUO You mentioned that you’re doing a new show and a book of the drawings in New York.
DH It’s called 'Corpus'. I’ve just sent 300 drawings over to Larry Gagosian, so it’s kind of everything I’ve done. When I started doing the drawings, I didn’t really want anybody to see them. But as I’ve been doing it for longer and have got older, I think maybe it’s good to see them.
HUO Is there a daily practice of drawing?
DH Yes, it’s the first point of call, isn’t it? You have an idea, and when it gets too complicated to hold in your head, it’s a great way to visualise it. It’s a very cheap and effective way to visualise it. I love that. You can work out what size it needs to be. You can imagine it. So I’ve always done that. I can work out in a few lines with a pencil on a piece of paper how big I need to make a tank. That way, you don’t make expensive mistakes.
HUO Peter Fleissig showed me the drawing of the shark.
DH That was done after the fact. Peter said he wanted a drawing of the shark, so I did one. I think you can tell if they’re done afterwards because you can see they’re drawn from a photograph of the piece.
HUO Are the drawings after the fact rare, or are there lots of them?
DH I think as long as you don’t pretend that they’re done before, it’s OK. If someone said to me, ‘Can you do me a drawing of the shark?’ I don’t mind doing that. But the ones done before are more interesting, because you’re trying out different possibilities and you can see the progress of how you got to the actual shark.
HUO Are there a lot of unknown drawings in the show that nobody has ever seen before?
DH Yes, there are lots. There are some drawings of horrible sculptures that never got made. There’s one called 'Lambie Loves Snoodle'. It’s got a pram in it and a baby monitor with a skull; it’s the very stupid idea of death talking to birth on a baby walkie-talkie or a mobile phone. The title was from a Lonely Hearts column.
HUO That piece was never made?
DH No. I don’t think it ever will be. There are lots like that. Loads. When you have an idea for an animal in formaldehyde, you do drawings for every animal. I was going to do a big Raft of the Medusa with dead animals and meat and big butchers’ tables, but I never made it. There’s a great one of a butterfly made out of two pigs sewn together ass to ass; you cut the back end off it and then four sides of beef make the wings. It’s a huge thing, like a butterfly of death, which I never made. You do drawings very quickly, and that’s easy, but then you work out how much it’s going to cost to make it and it becomes a ridiculous amount of money.
HUO There was this whole debate in the press the other day. People were asking about the shark: how will it be in the future? Does it matter if it’s a different shark? Does it matter whether or not you, as the artist, choose the shark? Can someone else make it?
DH The idea of replacing the shark is a bit of a difficult one. The original shark (in 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living') was done badly – that’s the problem. With the other ones, you probably won’t replace them. Everything is replaceable in my mind, but then, I’m not the person who’s going to decide that, because it happens when you’re gone. But I feel pretty bad about the way the shark was looking, because it’s deteriorated. A shark has got to look fierce. So I think it really had stopped doing what I wanted it to do. The problem with the shark was that it was done with MoMA and it was done with Charles Saatchi; there were too many people doing it and they all got involved with the commission. Different people advised them that there was no need to inject the shark. I wanted to inject the shark, they didn’t want to inject it – Charles can be a bit bullish – and they pushed me into not injecting it. So in the end, it didn’t get injected, and it was the only thing that didn’t get injected. Then we had all the stories that it had started floating; it completely rotted insider, and we had some real problems with it. In the end, Charles went off on his own and had it gutted and skinned and stretched over a fibreglass mould, so it wasn’t a real shark after a while, and it just started to be totally wrong: it was the wrong shape, it just didn’t look frightening, didn’t look dangerous, didn’t look like a shark. So for me to get involved at this point now, knowing what I know, I can go back in and get a new shark and make it look exactly like I wanted it to look originally because I’m still alive, so I think that’s good. But that’s an example of an artwork being handled really badly. It’s not like the 'Venus de Milo'. The arm is missing – it looks great. With old art you’ve got to use a lot of imagination. In a way there’s a big joy in looking at things and reconstructing their past lives. I mean, every day you have to deal with your own mortality, so a good way of doing that without too much fear is to deal with the mortality of an object.
HUO Some artists in the 1960s tried to make contracts stating that a work had to be dealt with in a particular way. That was another part of my question: how do you feel about that difficult business?
DH I don’t mind. There are two things in an artwork, aren’t there? There’s a visual thing and there’s a cerebral thing; there’s a mind thing and an eye thing going on. And then mind thing is always secondary; no matter how great or important conceptual art is, at the end of the day, it’s secondary to the eye thing. If it looks fucking good on the wall, none of that matters; it’s really not important. But I think you’ve got to be careful. When you’re making an artwork, there’s an idea and you play around with it and then it comes to life. But you can have an idea and put things together, and then it doesn’t work. So I suppose if things can come to life then they can also die. You can create an artwork, and it comes to life, but then maybe 500 years later it dies. I’ve never really thought about that. It’s a weird thought; a good thought.
HUO A limited lifespan? Like buildings.
DH Yes, like everything else. In my mind I think that art’s immortal, but maybe it has a limited lifespan. All these Old Masters are falling apart, and we’re clinging onto them through preservation. It’s like in that film of HG Wells’ 'The Time Machine', when the books fall apart in his hands. You’ll get that happening with art, I guess. With a Jackson Pollock painting that’s going to happen eventually. Or is it? You can create it digitally. Maybe art is like true love; maybe it never dies. That’s my hope, anyway. But it will die with the world. If we do nothing, the earth is going to smash into the sun, so we’re fucked really.
'An Interview' constitutes excerpts from an interview (with permission from the artist and the interviewer) which took place in connection with the exhibition 'In the darkest hour there may be light. Works from the Damien Hirst murderme collection' at Serpentine Gallery, London.
Copyright © Hans Ulrich Obrist/Damien Hirst, 2008.
Hans Ulrich Obrist — A Biography
Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London. He has served as curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and has curated 250 exhibitions worldwide.
Obrist’s recent publications include A Brief History of Curating and The Conversation Series (Vol. 1-20.)
In 2011, Obrist has been awarded the Bard College Award for Curatorial Excellence and the Swiss Institute Honoree Award 2011.