Damien Hirst on âBeautiful Inside My Head Forever'
Is Damien Hirst the devil or a rescuer of artists’ rights in disguise? On the eve of London’s first ever one-man auction, Time Out asks if he’s trying to kill off the market and the exhibition in one go
He’s done it again. First came the pioneering show in an East End warehouse and the meteoric rise to superstardom, fuelled by rockstar antics and an advertising guru’s collecting habits. Then there was a boom-and-bust art-themed restaurant called the Pharmacy that he sold off plate by plate for £20 million, not to mention the iconic sharks and cows in formaldehyde and, of course, the most expensive work of art ever assembled, his diamond-studded death’s head.
This time Damien Hirst, nicknamed Omen as a schoolboy, has broken the unwritten rules of the art market by offering 223 new works for sale direct through an auction house, this coming Monday and Tuesday at Sotheby’s, and no one knows quite what to make of it. His principal galleries, White Cube in London and Gagosian in New York, have publicly offered their support for his solo venture, even though he has effectively denied them a cut of a sale that might be worth anywhere up to, or beyond, £65 million. Other gallery owners are tight-lipped but wouldn’t relish the thought of their artists selling straight to the market, ignoring the traditional code of honour between maker and marketer.
Hirst has never played by the book, famously flouting the already mean 50/50 profit-sharing split that most artists have to put up with (his Irish business manager Frank Dunphy is the real wizard behind the curtain in all matters financial), while the idea of wresting back some control of his market is as potentially liberating as Radiohead’s decision to skip the record company and release their album via the internet. Of course, the defining difference is that, for Hirst, it’s probably more about the money than about pioneering an alternative means of distribution, something he denies when this is put to him in an exclusive chat just a few days before the sale.
‘For me it’s like kicking the fucking door off its hinges. Sure, if we achieve even the lowest estimates then it’s a fuck of a load of cash, even with the tax, but it’s about opening the door. Who’s going to be next?’
Where Hirst leads, others inevitably follow, and the latest rumours are that Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is in talks to hold a similar auction of his cutesy conveyor-belt art output. However, there have been suggestions in recent weeks that Hirst’s 100-strong factory of artisans is producing more than his dealers can shift. This would suggest that he needs Sotheby’s as a new outlet to supplement his gallery sales, to which he counters: ‘It’s a one-off, you do it because you can.’ What’s the danger of the sale flopping and tipping the art world over into a much-feared credit crunch? ‘Maybe this is the night that it will. You have to be prepared for anything. I get nightmares that no one will put their arms up. I won’t mind, at least I’d get nine out of ten for trying.’
Hirst doesn’t intend to be the art world’s Northern Rock, so is actually only taking a calculated risk; mitigated by the artist himself, who’s been busy charming collectors as they walk around the tightly packed rooms at Sotheby’s, which have surely never been so full of art. The auction is titled ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ and every surface is glinting with gold, silver, synthetic diamonds, gloss paint or butterfly wings. The familiar formaldehyde animals are here too, but have been given golden hooves or horns and swankier caskets. There are spots, spins, stubbed-out cigarette paintings and medicine cabinets galore – even though he’s promising to end some of these series and begin painting himself in earnest – but the cramped viewing conditions give the place a distinct end-of-the-line air: ‘After this they’ll have to build better galleries,’ reckons Hirst.
My real worry with the auction is not that he’s betrayed his artist-dealer relationship, but that he’s relinquishing the responsibility to prepare and put on proper exhibitions. Not so, he says. ‘I love shows; I’m still interested in filling galleries. But commercial galleries are quite intimidating places, so I’m always looking for exciting new ways to show art. I want people to see it, but Sotheby’s has a whole different audience, it has all these new buyers.’
If all eyes are on the phone lines to India, Russia and China, then why should London care about Hirst’s latest antics? Well, this brazenly commercialised art world, packed to the rafters and jacked up on speed, is what we’ve got to look forward to, unfortunately. And while Hirst would rather lead the way out in a blaze of glory than fade away, this insane auction won’t signify the death of the market or of the exhibition as we know it. But it would be a fitting place for the beginning of the end, given that we’ll all end up in Hirstian boxes or ashes one day.
'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ is showing at Sotheby’s until the sale on Sept 15.
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