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An Interview with Damien Hirst
Image Credit: shutterstock

An Interview with Damien Hirst

8 May 2017 |

He’s the mouthy, working class lad who became the world’s wealthiest living artist. But even after such enormous success, Damien Hirst still manages to divide opinion with his surreal, often morbid and sometimes violent work, as Culture Calling investigates.

Born in Bristol, 51-year-old Damien Hirst provocateur rose to prominence as part of the Young British Artists, a group of urban creatives who dominated the UK art scene during the 1990s. Best known for his spot paintings and series of artworks which featured dead animals - some preserved in formaldehyde, others left to rot - Hirst’s work has been showcased at some of the world’s most revered galleries included London’s Tate Modern and the Gagosian Gallery in New York.
 
Wind forward to 2011, and when his statue, ‘Charity’, was displayed on the top of the Royal West of England Academy, it was seen as a homecoming of sorts. For Hirst, though raised in Leeds, was born in Bristol, and the RWA declared at the time that it was “thrilled to host this landmark” which stood on the building at the bottom of Whiteladies Road for a year. Others, however, were not so impressed. And when the 22ft high figure based on the ‘Collection Box Girl With Teddy Bear And Leg In Callipers’ image (with her money box raided to represent ‘the erosion of society’s values’) was scrawled by vandals with the word ‘hoax’, it was unsurprising for an artist who has always proved to be divisive.
 
Whether criticising his method – Hirst employs a team of assistants to create much of his work, particularly more ubiquitous pieces like the spot paintings or the spinning wheels – or referring to his style as ‘obvious’, the artist appears to shrug off much of the ire levelled at him, understanding it as a by-product of phenomenal success. But there is one accusation that comes up again and again: that Hirst is more pre-occupied with money than art.
 
“It’s something I’ve long thought about,” he says. “But no matter how dangerously close the two get, art is always the priority. I’ve said it before, but it’s always true that art is real and money isn’t.”
 
With an estimated fortune exceeding £200million, it’s easy to see how the lines blur between the craft and the cash. In 2007, Hirst created a diamond-encrusted platinum skull which was sold to an investment group for a cool £50million… cash. Cast from an 18th century human skull and encrusted with 8,601 flawless pave-set diamonds, the piece is said to be the most expensive jewellery commission since the crown jewels, and appeared to stun and disgust art critics in equal measure. “I think the point of this is it’s the platform of what you have and the addition of whatever it is you apply to it. That goes for any piece for art. You can’t have one without the other. And that’s the challenge of art – extending your imagination onto a something physical and making sure one technique fits the other.”
 
While it’s an easy slur for critics to label the artist as a show off or, worse still, a sell-out, it’s worth bearing in mind his background. Having never met his father, Hirst was raised mostly by his mother (she remarried when he was two, divorcing a decade later) and was a difficult and unruly youth. Arrested several times for shoplifting, he rebelled against his mother’s strict Catholic leanings by listening to Sex Pistols and wearing leather trousers. For a period during his early success in the 1990s he battled serious drug and alcohol problems, and was once thrown out of London’s legendary Groucho club for urinating in a sink. In short, Hirst is a punk, and for all his success he still seems like a naughty kid thumbing his nose at society.
 
“I learnt early on that rebellion doesn’t matter when it comes to the market, but I do think that punk attitude has influenced my work,” he says. “I’ve always considered myself to be an infiltrator, and when I was younger I was quite angry and out to prove a point. But anger is worthless on its own - you have to be able to adapt and pay attention to what works.”
 
In 2012 the Tate Modern hosted a retrospective of his work an, unsurprisingly for an artist who is fascinated with both mortality and the macabre, it got Hirst mulling over own life and the fact that he was no longer the young maverick kicking up dust in the art world. “When you’re young you feel untouchable, like you’re changing things and anything is possible. But you can’t alter the past, it’s done,” he says sombrely before adding: “Frankly, it disturbs me.”
 
He is certainly a much-changed man since his wild, braggadocio days. He is sober for starters, and has been for over a decade. And creatively has moved on from ‘all the big statement stuff’, turning his focus back to the more classical side of art, as beautifully exhibited in his recent 'Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable' exhibition in Venice, in which he created two entire museums worth of ‘found artefacts’ from a mythical shipwreck. Considering his great wealth, he still displays the hunger and curiosity of an art student, and whether considered a showman, sell out or sublime genius, the art world certainly be poorer without him.
 
“People change and art changes. To stay relevant isn’t as important to me now as it has been in the past, but it’s comforting.”

Damien Hirst's exhibition 'Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable' is on 9 April - 3 December at Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

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