Damien Hirst was born in Bristol in 1965 and grew up in Leeds, where he began his studies in art at Jacob Kramer College. He graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1989. Hirst first came to public attention with the 1988 exhibition Freeze, which he conceived and curated while still at Goldsmiths. Staged in three installments in a disused warehouse in London’s Docklands, Freeze provided a showcase for Hirst’s own work and that of his friends and fellow students. In the 25 years since that pivotal show, Hirst has become one of the most prominent artists of his generation. His works are widely recognised and have achieved iconic status.
I decided to visit Damien Hirst’s first major survey of his work in London, at the Tate Modern. I’ve resisted his exhibitions for so long, I felt that it was finally time to give in and try to understand what he’s about.
There was a short video framing the background of his work and his artistic development, on a continuous loop. I watched this first, to give myself some context of understanding for his art. I learnt that for ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ Hirst advertised in fishing shacks and newspapers along the Great Barrier Reef for a shark, which to him represented primal fear. He treated it, mounted it in formaldehyde and presented it in a box for people to make what they would of it.
‘Lullaby’ is a selection of coloured pills arranged in row after row on shiny, metallic shelves and mounted on a wall.
There’s nothing extraordinary about his work of art except that he’s one of the few people on earth who invests a LOT of money in realising his unique concepts. Real butterfly wings arranged in patterns of colour in the shape of mandalas and stained glass windows,
a marble statue of a beautiful angel with half its body exposed to reveal flesh and bone underneath,
and then, there’s the infamous skull (For the Love of God) studded with 8,601 diamonds on display for free in a different part of the gallery.
In the documentary video about his life as an artist, Hirst says that he doesn’t make art for money, but makes money for art. In September 2008, Sotheby’s in London presented for auction 244 new works by Hirst. Rather than adhering to the traditional route of selling his work through a gallery, Hirst engaged directly with teh art market on a major scale, removing the middleman. It was an unprecedented event, conveived by Hirst as a single unified body of work, entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.
Hirst has two major studios – one in England the other in Mexico, contracts craftsmen and builds his business in the same way that Michaelangelo and Raphael did, in 15th century Rome. People work for him producing a plethora of artworks in factory-style production, according to his designs. When I googled ‘conceptual art’, Wikipedia told me that one of its principles is that the concept is written down in detail by an artist and can be implemented by anyone following the artist’s original design plan. Viewing Hirst’s unique art style opened another door in my mind to understanding the possibilities that artists of every ilk bring to our world. Attending Hirst’s exhibition helped me understand that his talent is not only in coming up with an incredible idea to showcase, but also in investing a huge amount of resource (financial, emotional, people) to realise the concept in real time.
Indeed, when I exited the exhibition space with my mind all a-whirl, I realised that Hirst made me believe that everything was possible, even other worlds.