When Damian Hirst first exploded onto the global art scene, his presence was incendiary, his artwork controversial and, along with the other Young British Artists (YBAs), his perspective on art was provocative and groundbreaking. Hirst was the new Millennium's first rockstar artist, the enfant terrible of a new generation of media-savvy consumers on the precipice of our new technology-led lives.
His antics were as famous as his art, a celebrity in his own right who once put a cigarette in his penis during an interview - as if it were that which was smoking - as part of a drink and drug-fuelled era of his life . The de facto leader of the YBAs, Hirst helped define the ragtag group of graduates centred around London's most prestigious art schools as emblematic of 'Cool Britannia'.
Although Hirst had many defining moments in the art world, for those in the know, if like myself you heard about Hirst through his exploits on the news and in newspapers, it wasn’t necessarily his art pieces that were took the establishment by storm, but his persona. However, his breakout moments were still centred around his art.
Two of these moments that stand out were, firstly, of course - the animals. Preserved in formaldehyde, Hirst (who saw himself as something of a live human test for his own chemical alchemy with alcohol and drugs) took to seeing animals the same way - as a source of curiosity, a visceral blood and guts symbol of life and death. Whilst his own body was a living exemplar of his twisted philosophy, Hirst's artworks were more refined, less chaotic, with an amplified power that the sober focus of his working mind gave them.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a 14-foot tiger shark captured as if in motion within a steel and glass framed structure. It’s weight and presence are foreboding and alluring, proffering a new proposition of what art would now be defined as.
Critics were regularly inflamed. The prevailing attitude of ‘this isn’t art’ or ‘anyone could do that’ was met with Hirst’s retort - ‘but you didn’t, did you?’ The second moment that suggested Hirst wasn’t just an artist, but a promotional mastermind with a nuanced understanding of psychology came in his 2008 show/auction/event Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. In an unprecedented move, Hirst chose to sell a whole show, without the help of a gallery.
Selling direct to the public, the show raised more than eyebrows in the usually conservative British art world, amassing sales of an estimated $198 million for the 218 items in a move that itself was interpreted to be a piece of performance art.
From this show, one can see that beyond an artistic mind, Hirst was switched onto the movements of money through the art market, utilising an entrepreneurial mindset to bump up prices as well as create a great deal of publicity. Opting to auction through Sotheby’s, Hirst could avoid the large commissions charged by galleries, bringing him closer to his buying audience. Hirst said, on the process, “It’s a very democratic way to sell art and it feels like a natural evolution for contemporary art. Although there is risk involved, I embrace the challenge of selling my work this way.”
Setting a record for a single-artist auction, Hirst displayed his entrepreneurial nous, all whilst financial markets were plunging - a time when luxury often falls by the wayside. In-keeping with most of Hirst’s career, this move (particularly having known associates prop up bidding, in order to inflate prices) came under a great deal of criticism, to the extent that in a Hirst press event after the auction, only carefully picked media were allowed to enter - those who has criticised were denied access.
Working in such an autocratic and business-minded way jarred with many in the art world who saw art as a puritanical expression of human thought and endeavour. Hirst, first and foremost, saw it as a means to shock and to make money. Others, knowing that the art market - for the best part of its existence - has been about money, came to admire Hirst’s ability to generate interest and capital, commodifying art whilst tackling issue such as life, death, meaning and unironically, commodification itself.
Shock and outrage defined the earliest parts of Hirst’s career, but over the last 5+ years, he has come to public attention less for art and antics, and more for his ability to consolidate wealth. Initially investing in art, then restaurants, Hirst began to develop a portfolio of property too, bringing his estimated net worth as of last year up to $300 million, the richest artist in the UK.
Despite his wealth, or maybe because of it, Hirst’s latest artistic explorations - as seen through his frequently updated Instagram - show an entirely different direction for the artist. In what could broadly be thought of as pop art, Hirst has taken to the colour pink, using a lot of splashing techniques in images of trees, sort of like a powerful Oriental cherry blossom set on large canvases sitting around the walls of his studio. These trees are depicted against a sky blue background, their beauty coming from nature itself and in a post from October 2019, seem set to be part of a new exhibition in June 2020 with Foundation Cartier.
These works lack the pomp of his earlier pieces. They point to a more subdued Hirst, someone more mature and, ultimately, someone possibly entering a new phase of their life. He’s not completely lost his sense of humour though. Only two years ago he built up a show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, claiming to have found a trove of ancient delights that he displayed in two Venetian palaces. Few are better myth-makers that Hirst, but in doing this show, he took a very literal view of the process, displaying his capabilities of weaving a good yarn with the vital ingredients of drama, mystique and awe. Still, underlining it all was the ‘is this really true? really art?’ question - a line-of-thinking that Hirst’s work has always hinged on.
Even his presence on Instagram gives a real insight into the artist. He occasionally reminisces on his drinking past, stating that he’s glad to be sober. He’ll post images of old artworks and give them context through backstory, allowing the audience to get closer to the person rather than the persona that was sold throughout the 90s and early 00s.
Damien Hirst has always been unpredictable, so to say he’s on a linear path of the maturing artist would be silly. Still, it’s interesting to see the shift from an artist who was both symbol of art world greed, yet subversive and anti-establishment, morph into someone more sage-like, exploring art in a new way, with new materials and, importantly for Hirst, in a hands-on manner symbolising a new personal connection to what he’s doing.
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