He may now be teetotal, a doting father with a very big house in the country and a London mansion rather than a shark-pickling renegade, but Damien Hirst is still ripping up the art rule book.
Hailed as a shaman or dismissed as a charlatan for a quarter of a century, Damien Hirst has rarely been far from the cultural spotlight, or long absent from the bold type of tabloid outrage. So what to make of the affable, eloquent, grey-haired man curled up on a sofa at his company headquarters in London’s Marylebone, chatting about his new exhibition with the amiable ease of a man waiting for a teacher’s appointment at a parents’ evening? Has Lucifer been dehorned? Whatever happened to the shark-pickling, fly-murdering enfant terrible of Britart?
The good news is that the 49-year-old Hirst is indeed curled up — but like a coiled spring rather than a spent force. In the course of our conversation, he fires off ideas about pharmaceutical firms, evolution, psychiatry, America, death, transubstantiation, Michelangelo, Yuval Noah Harari’s terrific new book on humankind, Sapiens — and, of course, his own latest work.
Behind him hangs a black city map of London composed mainly of scalpel blades. “I heard a thing on the radio about surgical bombing and I just thought: ‘I wonder if you could do that with scalpel blades, it would look really great.’ It’s all done with scalpels, pins, needles, zips, safety pins — punk stuff. Just stuck in the paint — it’s just black gloss paint.”
Cartography, he says, is intrinsically bellicose. “As soon as you create a map, you get wars. People start to see a way they can say: ‘Well, I want that and you want that.’ You draw a line on it – then start fighting over it.”
In November, 17 of these extraordinary pieces will go on display at his long-time dealer Jay Jopling’s new gallery in Sao Paulo. First, however, there is Schizophrenogenesis at the Paul Stolper gallery in Bloomsbury, an exhibition of new prints and sculptural work that explores the aesthetics of medicine — a fresh journey into the intersections of religion, science and illness, terrain that has long fascinated the artist. There are huge pills, an outsized syringe, even a seven-foot scalpel in stainless steel.
“I’ve done that kind of Alice in Wonderland thing, where I’ve just played with the scale, which I never did that much before. So I’ve just taken all those medical things and enlarged and reduced and blown them up.”
Hirst agrees with the American writer Don DeLillo’s notion that the names of pharmaceuticals — Effexor, Toradol, Percodan — sound like science fiction gods: “They choose them on purpose, they make them like that — legends, myths.” In many ways, he argues, medicine has supplanted religion precisely. Psychiatry resembles the sacrament of confession, hypochondria is the physiological form of extreme piety and even pills “are like the host, aren’t they?”
The promise of spiritual immortality, meanwhile, has been replaced by the bait of ever-greater longevity — and as far as the atheistic Hirst is concerned, the new priesthood of science is as meretricious as the old priesthood of religion. “It’s a lie, really. They’re not offering you anything. Everything is about cash at the end of the day, isn’t it?”
Ah, yes: money. Fame and fortune have certainly liberated Hirst — he does not discourage speculation that he is worth between $320 million and $480 million — but then he was never in love with the myth of poverty as a precondition of artistic authenticity. Since he burst on to the London cultural scene as the main force behind the exhibition Frieze in 1988, while still at Goldsmiths, there has always been a touch of the man on the make about this son of Leeds.
His stepfather (the only father he knew) was a mechanic who left the family when Hirst was 12 and his mother worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau. His answer to the charge that he has sold out has always been to deny that selling art for high prices is inherently culpable. Money enables him to create more. “I had to use the cash to make the art,” he has said. But he has also admitted that “money is massive… I had no money as a kid so I was maybe a bit more motivated than the rest.”
On 15 September 2008 — the very day that Lehman Bros collapsed — Sotheby’s in London launched a sale of his work entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever that shifted 223 lots in 24 hours, raising more than $170 million. It seemed the financial aura of Hirst’s art was undimmed even by a historic financial crash.
Six years on, he shudders at the memory. “It seems to me the timing was good but it wasn’t clever. Too close for comfort. It could have been a disaster. I was thinking: ‘Oh God, if I’d done that two weeks later, it would have f***ed up, maybe.’ I don’t know. It’s fun when you look back at it.”
Well, yes. Nobody in recent cultural history has so successfully reconciled the glamour of art, as an awesomely lucrative basis for investment and speculation, with its democratisation and popularisation as an accessible, provocative form of expression that can trigger strong reactions (he was, he tells me, upset when the late Robert Hughes, author of The Shock of the New, attacked him) and even, as he puts it, “heal”.
To explain this duality, he identifies two forms of “alchemy” (another favourite in the Hirst lexicon). The first is the transformation of an artefact into an object of high value “when you can start to say it’s worth $1 million or $2 million”. The second, more numinous process, is captured in his maxim that “art is generosity”, that “making things should have more value than buying things”. According to which criterion, the birthday card made by a child is art — as is For the Love of God, the $80 million skull made by Hirst in 2007 from a platinum cast, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds and human teeth. Art, in other words, can be simultaneously owned and shared.
Mortality is never far from Hirst’s work and he likes Saul Bellow’s formulation of death as the “black backing on the mirror”. In his own life, he had to deal with the death of three friends in relatively close succession: Joe Strummer, lead singer of The Clash, with whom he went to festivals (and who died of an undiagnosed heart defect in 2002), the artist Angus Fairhurst (who took his life in 2008) and Gordon Burn (fellow hellraiser and co-author of Hirst’s ‘autobiography’ On The Way to Work, who died of cancer in 2009). The loss of this trio was, he says, “quite brutal”.
Now many years sober, Hirst has grown more patient, a contented father of three sons (Connor Ojala, who is almost 20 and an aspiring artist himself, Cassius Atticus, born in 2000, and Cyrus Joe, who came along five years later). Hirst and the boys’ mother, the designer Maia Norman, split in 2012 after two decades together when she admitted to having an affair with an army officer and the children live with Hirst in his new $54 million house in Regent’s Park. But parenthood suits him and he dismisses as nonsense Cyril Connolly’s maxim that the enemy of art is “the pram in the hall”.
He has taken to yoga, as men of a certain age tend to, though he finds it “quite difficult to get into chakras, and stuff like that”. He is no longer the one-man riot he once was (he admitted on Desert Island Discs in May last year that he thought he had lost the $32,000 cheque awarded to him as the winner of the 1995 Turner Prize — only to find he had blown it at the Groucho Club). He is no longer the unpredictable madman affectionately described in Alex James’ memoir of the Britpop years, Bit of a Blur, prone to “shouting exquisite obscenities” and carrying around “tens of thousands” in a carrier bag. Nor, however, is he a long-tamed party animal sliced and preserved in formaldehyde. The intellectual and conceptual pulse is still beating fast.
How has Hirst avoided the elephant trap that awaits so many rebels and contrarians: the dread status of ‘national treasure’? One of the things he learned from Strummer (“top geezer”) was that an artist must curate his life as carefully as his work: “You meet a lot of people who are your heroes and they turn out not to be — whereas Joe, I think, was somebody who ended up being more of a hero in real life than the image. He once said to me as I was getting successful: ‘Who you are is important, but also, equally as important, is what you represent.’ I didn’t believe it, I thought: ‘F*** off.’ I never believed in ‘what you represent’, but then it dawned on me that he was right, you know.” This, Hirst says, means being true to the impact you have had and honouring those you have influenced by what you do and how you make use of your acclaim.
“I remember when I first moved down to Devon [Hirst bought a farmhouse in Devon in the mid-1990s] a guy came up to me in the pub and said: ‘I want to come and shake your hand.’ So I shook his hand and he said: ‘I just want to thank you,’ and I went ‘Why?’ He said: ‘Because you did that video for Blur, Country House [directed by Hirst in 1995]’ and I was like: ‘Oh, really?’ He goes: ‘Yes, because I’m an art teacher and I couldn’t get the kids into art but when I told them that an artist had done that video they all wanted to get into art.’ I love that.”
Although controversial, Hirst’s contention that art and artist are inextricable seems a much more honest way of looking at contemporary culture than the counter-claim that the work can be successfully segregated from its maker. “I’ve always looked at art as being the map of a person’s life and that’s what’s exciting to me. So whenever I’ve got interested in an artist, I always look at their entire career and the turns and the changes that they move through.” Picasso, Bacon and Warhol all fit snugly into this thesis.
There was a time, he admits with a grin, “for 20 years or something, [when] drinking — I just thought I was going to live forever — I truly believed I was going to live forever.” Now, more seriously, he finds his thoughts turning instead to posterity. “Maybe the ultimate value is the value that the viewers assign to [the work] when the artist is gone. You’re making things for people who haven’t been born yet; they’re the people who are going to decide whether or not it gets chucked out or put up on the walls of the museum. And you can’t control that, you can’t control what’s going to happen in 200 years’ time.”
True, but you can stake your claim. The paradox of Hirst’s work — and one of the reasons it will survive — is its covert traditionalism and his core desire to describe what he sees rather than to destroy it. “All the artists that I admire from the past did what I’m doing, which is look at the world they live in — which is an old-fashioned idea. It was Ruskin who said that art is holding a mirror up to life and it’s an unbroken line back to cavemen, making handprints on the wall and part of that tradition.”
Too often the debate about Hirst is really a very narrow argument about taste dressed up as something more profound. Nobody can be forced to acknowledge his cultural significance or to concede that outsized pill bottles have artistic value. But there is also an enduring magnetism to his work that cannot be dismissively ascribed to mere fads or price tags.
“I used to say: ‘If I could f***ing redo this, I wouldn’t change a f***ing thing.’ I used to stand on the table shouting it out. I still think that. I mean, you know, I’m a really lucky guy, I’ve had lots of great opportunities. Having an audience is an amazing thing and being able to put things out, whether they like it or not — you know, it’s just amazing.”
Which is the key to Damien Hirst: he’s not a cynic at all but a dyed-in-the-wool English romantic, a perpetuum mobile of ideas and cultural conjuring. All power to his elbow.