He is controversial. His inspiration is death, a New York gallery has banned some of his artworks for fear of visitors vomiting – and yet he is the world’s richest living artist. At Sothebys a selection of his finest pieces was auctioned for a total of £111 million. Damien Hirst is the bad boy of the art world but a retrospective of his most iconic works held at Tate Modern shows that he is never kept too far from the fold.
Hirst’s mother, despairing at her wayward son, asked him,”For the love of God, what are you going to do next?” Hirst took a human skull, made a platinum cast of it and then added back the original teeth. Then he had it covered with 8,601 glittering diamonds from the finest jewellers. Some were shocked at the use and portrayal of the human body in this way. Others were fascinated by the idea of ultimate luxury juxtaposed against the ultimate end, with critics penning long reviews about the meaning of wealth, beauty, transience and the soul. And what did Hirst name this piece? – For the Love of God.
A recurring theme for Hirst is the use of animal bodies in his installations, including living larvae and decapitated pig heads. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a large vitrine containing a dead shark in formaldehyde and it is one of the very few pieces of art that I have found terrifying. The jaws are wide open so when looked at front on, I felt that I was about to be swallowed whole, and consequently scenes from my past sped by in no particular order. The New York Times has described the effect of this work as producing a “direct, visceral experience” noting the irony of suspending death in art in a way unachievable in life.
Of far greater delicacy are Hirst’s paintings made up of the wings butterflies (it is claimed they are collected only after their demise). Their frailty contrasts with the size of the paintings some of which are 6 metres wide and 2 metres high, producing an effect that is mesmerising as well as rather unsettling. Hirst claims he has been inspired by the quote from the Bhagavad Gita “I am become death, shatterer of worlds.”
Debate rages as to whether this is art or not in the first place – some of his installations at the exhibition, such a bath-sized ashtray full of cigarettes, left me rolling my eyes somewhat. Questions are also raised as to whether Hirst is a fully fledged artist because he has assistants to help him make his work. After all, anybody could direct a shark to be put in a tank of formaldehyde. To which Hirst retorts, “but they didn’t, did they?”
Take heart, Hard Luxe Living