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Victory Over Decay

Rudi Fuchs 2007

‘For the Love of God’ (2007). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

‘And may these characters remain when all is ruin once again.’ 

WB Yeats.

There is the enigma: resplendent apparition, glittering effigy of death, cryptic reliquary, science fiction warrior mask – immaculate and grim in a cubic case of cold glass on a black pedestal, at eye level, black all around. It is a platinum replica of a real human skull, encrusted all over with thousands of small diamonds, ineffably luminous. Even the hole of the nose and the cavities of the eye sockets are covered and closed with diamonds. That is most unsettling. The diamond skull of scintillating light is blind. My gaze is then drawn to an opulent ornament mounted on its forehead (a large, pear-shaped pink diamond, surrounded by smaller pointed stones). There is an air of sectarian, priestly mystery around this shining star. The pale teeth came from the original skull. They are a spectacle: they smile at you with weird, sinister mockery, ‘For the Love of God’ (2007), look at me, in my puzzling splendour, and look at your death. This arcane object is a fantastic and excessive mass of intense light, whereas death, in art, is usually bleak and surrounded by dying light and shadow. Yet there is, in a careful installation of ritual austerity: revealed more than just shown. We see it shine, intrigued by its eerie magnificence, but we stand before it in silence. With inexorable authority the skull puts us in our place.

In its inflexible formulation, axiomatic and extreme, the enigma is completely at home in the art of Damien Hirst. In the iconography of art, skulls were always contemplative objects. In the British Museum there is an ancient Aztec skull sculpted from gleaming transparent rock-crystal. Even then the dazzling hardness of the Hirst skull is really without formal genealogy. It entered his work and then is there as if, by incontestable logic, it was always meant to be. We knew what a skull is and signifies but that now has changed. The image is irremovable in my head. Remember the shark that made the artist famous? A legendary killing machine, an embodiment of cruelty and danger and fear, that via the title of that work: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991), became an object of philosophical contemplation. In retrospect, that irrefutable image was somewhat of a distant prologue to the skull. After all, Damien Hirst’s art is concerned with love and fear, with death, malady, physical decay, medical practice and pharmaceutical illusion. But for all its compelling imagery, his work is not sinister. His is not a surrealist. The inevitable proximity of death is the most real thing in human life. Fear of death is a more powerful emotion than love or lust. To some extent fear of death keeps us alive.

The diamond skull is a piece of extraordinary, mad artistry. Art has the great power to change something into something else and thus subvert emotions so that they can become new emotions. I tend to see the skull as a glorious intense victory over death – at least over the temporal, physical and ugly aspect of it: rotting decay. The piece expresses a wonderful pride of vision, putting melancholy at a distance. In traditional still life paintings about the vanity of human life, the fragile skull is always the dominant object: surrounded by spent candles, mute musical instruments, dusty old books full of useless knowledge. These still, intimate arrangements were invariably lit by weak, pale light. In this shadowy light the yellow-grey skull was the focus of mournful melancholy and tender lamentation – the opposite of the severe vigour that emanates from the Hirst skull. That skull is out of this world, celestial almost. The manner in which the small objects in a traditional still life are put together is like the tactful mise en scene of domestic interior scenes, all ordinary. That was the point of their composition: they wanted to make death ordinary and domestic. A very sad occasion but acceptable because, in Christian belief, death is the hopeful passage to the vicinity of God. That is why those still life paintings are so serene. An artist with the tremendous pathos of Damien Hirst cannot just resign to the inevitability of physical decay. The very idea challenges his pride and emotional intelligence as an artist.

In death, first the heart gives out and then the brain dies. The flesh begins to rot. The bones dry and crack. Because of its compactness, the skull is more resistant. The skull is also the mysterious seat of the senses. Nobody knows where the soul resides. The skull is the last effigy of the living face. That is why it is such a sad and iconic image of the passing of time. But the diamond skull is made of materials of utmost durability. Platinum lasts forever, diamonds are eternal. The ornament on the skull’s forehead lures the enigma into some strange, fictive, religious atmosphere. There, in that ambiguity, the skull proclaims victory over decay. At the same time it represents death as something infinitely more relentless. Compared to the tearful sadness of a vanitas scene, the diamond skull is glory itself. Covered by diamonds as by mail, it became an object of eternal life in death, blazing with light, resistant and heroic – yet still unspeakably ambiguous, as Damien Hirst always uncannily succeeds in making ambiguity itself into a seductive, axiomatic image. Decay is only life, after that death is eternal. ‘For the Love of God’, but do not fear.

When I finally saw the skull properly displayed, in its glass case and picked out by spotlights in the black room, it seemed strangely small. Normally we do not often contemplate skulls except in paintings, where their size is smartly adjusted to the picture’s scale. Sometimes they even seen a bit enlarged. As the single most important object in a vanitas still life, the skull has to dominate the scene like a mountain looms over a landscape. Ordinarily our sense of size is conditioned by the living heads and faces we see around us. But when skin and flesh are removed, and other physical aspects that give expression and character to a face (eyes, ears, nose, cheeks, bushy hair) are gone as well, what then remains is truly a death’s head – diminished and surprisingly small. Little remains after death but a stiffened grimace from which all live colour has gone away. The grimace is weird; and then we realize how essential in a living face the curling smile is of soft, full lips.

Damien Hirst chose to make of that hideous grimace a conspicuous narrative feature that also, because of the absence of fleshy lips, effectively marks the place of the numb skull in relation to other modern iconic artworks. In one sense the lifeless but glittering diamond skull is, as image, an exact counterpoint to the sexy and coy face of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. From there the tradition of that type of imagery reaches back to the Madonnas of Raphael and others, with their demure smile of sweet modesty, and further back if you want to, Medieval and Byzantine models of love and life. So, looking intently at the skull mounted in is glass case, I noticed that it was maybe just a bit tilted backwards – so as to give somewhat more prominence to its face. That was another reason why it looked so small. In the meantime, the official photographs of the piece are very formal and frontal. There are also profile photographs shot from either side, as in police mug shots. But the frontal photograph became the signature image that in the days after the skull’s first presentation appeared in newspapers all over the world. It seems to me that in this photograph the skull appears larger and sterner than when one looks at the real thing in its case.

It is obvious that Damien Hirst carefully arranged these appearances. Calculated mise en scene is an essential structural feature in his art. The skull was presented at eye level, or maybe somewhat lower. In any case I remember that I myself had to bend slightly forward to look at it comfortably. Before I saw the real skull, I Had been shown a graphic rendering of the object: in frontal view, resembling what became the official photograph. Compared to the drawing the real skull looked, as I’ve said, smaller. Thinking about it again now, I am no longer sure if it was actually ever so slightly tilted backwards. Maybe it was just a visual effect resulting from the angle from which I was looking. Still, there is a strange difference between the official photograph and the skull in reality.

The first thing you notice when you look at the skull is its intense luminosity. It is a truly scintillating object of endless light. It does not even look dead. Then you see the diamonds that gather and emanate the light – and then in particular the remarkably even and regular texture of the small diamonds. At one point that texture seemed to me as gentle as Victorian needlework, which even gave the skull tenderness: a jewel asleep. The effect of the intense glow of light was that the cavities in the skull did look not so much like cadaverous hollows. Their shadows were filled with light. In the photograph those cavities are much more sinister. In that very frontal view, with its taut outline against black, the skull looks like a forbidding mask – and in that mask the grimace of the mouth and teeth has become the defining visual aspect. From that photographic image one can deduce, almost, that Damien Hirst had wanted to give the skull-mask a strong expression – as if even death still has an expressive face. The real diamond skull is enigmatic, philosophical, even strangely peaceful; its photographic transformation is similarly enigmatic, but also menacing and very tough.

When I wrote the first part of this text I had only seen the graphic summary. But that suited my purpose: to write about the conceptual meaning of a platinum skull covered with real diamonds, about the idea that the indestructible luxury of the object represented a victory over decay and death. Then when I saw the real skull I enjoyed myself tremendously in seeing it; I discovered the brilliant artistry of the artist in devising it and actually have it made. Gradually the notion that it was made from very precious materials faded from my head: as in a museum, when you are rather detached contemplating a beautiful vessel, gold encrusted with diamonds. The thing is at rest: just an historical object, and you can quietly admire the superb workmanship and the elegance of its design. The Hirst skull is not, however, just an exercise in beauty. The piece is much more ambiguous now because it has entered the world – and our awareness – as a contemporary work of art. It stirs things up; it is not at rest at all, and is formally challenging and daring and insolent. It is taking sculpture to the limit.

The skull was first conceived and signed in drawings. It is interesting to note that in all the drawings I have seen, the skull is only lightly, cursorily sketched. The texture of the diamond covering was then scribbled in a much more detailed manner, in irregular patches, leaving other parts of the skull bare. The emphasis shifts from general shape to what really matters: the detailed articulation of surface. When the drawing gets more decisive it is mostly around the hollows of the absent eyes and the grimace of the mouth. There more pressure is applied to the pencil. The drawing becomes more exploratory and concentrated. Hirst is looking for an expression he wants the skull to have. The expressions vary from drawing to drawing: they seem to swing from the sinister to the burlesque and back again. Somehow the skull is also stiffly laughing about itself. While drawing then, Damien Hirst worked not at all on a conceptual piece but on the precise formulation of a sculptural object, how that could be meticulously crafted. All formal deliberations that were considered in the drawings somehow found their way into the finished skull, even as those deliberations had to be translated into the more formal craft of setting diamonds. In the end then, when I finally saw the real diamond skull, it was a skull but even more it was an extremely delicate, condensed, small sculpture in the form of a skull – and it was breathtakingly beautiful. That is how I looked at it: at its refined form, at the sparkling texture and dense rhythm of the diamonds, at the sculpted light. I looked at the thing as a wonderful work of fragile art, as John Keats did when looking at the Grecian Urn:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Though foster-child of silence and slow time

An artist friend of mine called me after he had seen the skull reproduced in a newspaper. ‘This is incredible,’ he said. ‘This is the real beginning of the 21st century, just as the 20th began with the 'Demoiselles d’Avignon'. I don’t care about the so-called meaning, this thing about victory over death, this is an image so tremendously powerful that it will change art. It is so radical, this is even beyond Bruce Nauman.’ Judged within the sequence of Damien Hirst’s work, the skull is unique in that the factuality of its realism is more eerie than ever before. The great theatrical pieces with sharks and sheep and cows and flies buzzing around rotting flesh, were also realistic – but their realism was performed with romantic flamboyance. Then, having to do with death (forever a popular theme in art) there was often something elegiac about them. At times I saw them as the modern successors of those lavish sepulchral monuments one sees in grand churches. Looking at the lonely sweet sheep drifting in formaldehyde (‘Away from the Flock’ (1994) it is impossible not to think of Holman Hunt’s wonderfully quaint paining ‘Our English Coasts’, (1852) (‘Strayed Sheep’) with the sheep ambling about in bright sunlight on the cliffs near Hastings, one however unhappily entangled in thorny bushes. Such memories cannot be avoided because that is how our minds work. They do not at all detract from the utter modernity of Hirst’s work. Thinking, among other things, of the drama of ‘Moby-Dick’ when looking at the shark, makes such pieces so much richer; and can one really see the lovely fluttering white dove, symmetrically framed in its aquarium of light-greenish-blue liquid (‘The Incomplete Truth’ (2006) and not dream away and think of certain doves in certain early Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation? That then is how these works, especially the figurative ones, will drift forever in the infinite space of memory and imagination. As for the stricter art historians: it is irrelevant if Damien Hirst ever thought of Holman Hunt. It is enough that I (or you) think of him.

The diamond skull is different, however, from those other, more rhetorical works. It is a tough, extravagant object: not so much in its conception nor even in its costliness but because of the extraordinary length Damien Hirst was prepared to go to make it – and to make it with such perfection. In this piece technical refinement is like an obsession. On the other hand it is also a very light work. The other works of Damien Hirst do not make you smile. About the skull, especially with the grimace, there is something very funny. I remember how in the late Sixties we watched body art, in very serious silence, including the videos of Bruce Nauman – one called ‘Walk with Contrapposto’ (1968),  in which the artist (seen from behind) pushes and wriggles his body through a narrow corridor. It took me years, I must admit, to realize that that piece was also funny. Not being strict it never became orthodox. It did not close down discussion, which is important. The skull is certainly a very serious piece. The sculpture expresses a deeply sincere dedication to art. It is lushly beautiful, as are the intricately patterned, multi-coloured butterfly paintings. Yet Damien Hirst has somehow managed to also give the skull a certain jocularity. The formal particularity and the attention to detail of the sculpture are unbelievably extreme – just for a piece of art. Now is that not moving and also funny: to go to that length of decoration? Ultimately the lightness saves the skull from being too heavily serious. Because of this air of humour the sculpture remains intellectually open. In no way is it orthodox about itself. That is an essential quality in great art. It does not invite veneration. It will keep stirring the bowels of contemporary art with cultural and artistic aggression. The thing offers a lot to talk about because it also offers a lot to see. Thank God it is not an idea but a sculpture after all. 

'Victory over Death' originally published in Damien Hirst 'Beyond Belief' (Other Criteria/White Cube, 2007). Copyright © Rudi Fuchs, 2007.

Rudi Fuchs — A Biography

Rudi Fuchs is an art historian who since 1974 was director of museums in Eindhoven, Turin, The Hague and Amsterdam. He has organised numerous major exhibitions, and was artistic director of Documenta 7  in 1982. He is an authority on modern and contemporary art and now is an independent writer. He lives in Amsterdam and Norfolk.