Interview with Damien Hirst

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© Phil Fisk
Posted: Tue Oct 13 2009

Damien Hirst has given up the tanks of dead animals, the spin paintings, the butterfly works and the medicine cabinets and made some good old-fashioned oil paintings. Ossian Ward talks to the artist as he unveils his new work at the Wallace Collection.

In 2008 you sold £111 million worth of work as Lehman Brothers went belly-up. How does it feel to have held that auction on the day that the global economy went into meltdown?
'It was amazing that we got in and got out in that moment, but it felt pretty close, like we'd narrowly avoided a plane crash or something.'

It's been described as the art market's last gasp…
'Lots of young artists keep coming up to me and saying, “You went and took all the money out of the art world”, but what they don't realise is that I spent way more than £200 million on buying art last year.'

Away from the business side, have you now rediscovered the serious business of being an artist again?
'This has probably been the biggest transformation in my career. I felt for ages that those “spot” and “spin” paintings were getting wrapped around my neck and that I needed to make something more, something deeper. It was the perfect point at which to stop, with a big bang. I mean, now it's weird. Artists don't usually do drastic changes. You're supposed to develop gradually.'

Is this the end of brand Hirst as we know it?

'I'm bringing everything to an end. I've shut down two studios - the butterflies in Peckham and one in Gloucestershire - and all the medicine cabinets have stopped. There's one large formaldehyde work that I've been working on for six years of three crucified cows in marble tanks, but that will be it for the vitrines too, apart from a few bits and pieces.'

The rumour going around was that you'd locked yourself in the garden shed to teach yourself how to paint all over again. Is that true?

'I kind of did that for a couple of years from 2006, although it wasn't quite that severe. I kept it simple at first, just painting in blue and white, before bringing more colour in. I started with a skull because I'd just done the diamond skull (“For the Love of God”), and then used other things lying around, like the ashtray.'

Did staring at a blank canvas frighten you?
'It used to scare me but it doesn't anymore. It's almost like; if you're afraid of painting, then you make jokes about it. I remember when you used to have your profession on your passport and I always thought that being a painter was the best one to be, because my heroes were Goya and Francis Bacon.'

Why did you decide to take up painting fulltime?
'As I was getting older, I just felt that the work I was making was of someone younger. I didn't see that work taking me to my death; it was too shiny. I couldn't find a way to adapt what I was doing. The best piece I've ever made was the fly piece, “1,000 Years” and then it's kind of gone downhill from there. But painting kept rearing its ugly head. The spots and spins are all paintings, but they're this sort of nihilistic, romantic, celebratory denial of a painter. Then I realised that I couldn't really deny it anymore.'

Are you relinquishing the conceptual and going all traditional?
'I went to court after my sheep got vandalised at the Serpentine in 1994 - this guy had put ink in the [formaldehyde] tank. I didn't want to prosecute him but I was called as a witness. I was freaking out because the lawyer asked me to define conceptual art and there were all these blokes from The Sun at the back writing everything down. So I said, “Conceptual art is when the art exists in the mind of the viewer not in the art work itself” or something like that. And then he goes, how would you describe your art? So I said it was traditional, because he was trying to build up this whole case about conceptual art and how this guy's vandalism was actually helping me out. And when I said traditional I think I actually thought it, you know? Conceptual or minimal art seems a bit dead - I grew up on that. We're all traditional at heart.'

Is painting still art's gold standard?
There's only ever been one idea and it's the same all the way through the history of art: painting is dead, long live painting. It's like John Lennon said, “What do you do when you grow your hair? You cut it.” Then he said, “What do you do when you cut your hair? You grow it”.'

But to some extent you've always painted, haven't you?
'I made the first eight or so spot paintings myself but mine were all drippy. I liked the idea that spot paintings would imply this endless repetition of a perfect painting being produced by this invisible, imaginary artist or some mechanical, android artist. I almost stopped them two or three times when they became repetitive, because we made about 800, although there was a time when I was drinking a lot and giving the paintings away, so I'm not quite sure. One of them, painted on metal, was even sent to Mars on Beagle 2 - it's a shame that it crashed into the planet.'

There are some self-portraits in the show. Haven't you tried to keep your own image out of the work until now?
'You say that, but everything is a self-portrait really. The shark, the diamond skull - they're all self-portraits. There was a quote I gave a few years ago: “Even when you wipe your arse it's a self-portrait.”'

You've dedicated some of your new work to friends who've recently passed away, like Angus Fairhurst and Joe Strummer…
'The world gets darker as you get older. I'm 44 now and I did a massive amount of celebrating for 20 years. For a while there, I actually believed I was going to live forever, but having friends dying means you just have to accept you're not immortal. I can quietly express those things in paintings, but there was no way I could express that in a spin or a spot and it was starting to gnaw away at me. Maybe I'm having a midlife crisis, because all art should be a celebration of life in someway, a map of a man or a woman's life. Art is a great way to look at the darkness without having to look at it directly, because the real darkness is fucking unbearable.'

Does this focus on mortality come from your Catholic upbringing?
'I use that imagery quite a lot because as a kid I had it drummed into me until the age of 12, but I was never into it because there is no God. I've got three boys and I'm trying to let them find their own way. I asked the 14-year-old if he believed in God and he said, “No, but I believe in Noah”. The middle one said he does but the little one came up and said, “D'you mean Godzilla?”'

Are you worried about what the critics will say about these Blue Paintings?
'I'm going to get slagged off, aren't I? I always do. They'll say, “Who does he think he is, Francis-fuckin'-Bacon?” It's something I've got to get through. You've got to aim really high and get down really low. I find once I start painting I think less about Bacon than Rembrandt these days. The fluidity of paint and how he represents a figure or a face is unbelievable.'

How does it feel to be the most written-about artist of your generation?
'I try to avoid it, because there was a time when I did every interview and ended up just repeating myself. I've hung out with people like Bono or Lily Allen who get hassled, so I'm lucky really. I put Lily in a car the other night and the flashing cameras blinded me, but I don't get recognised that often. I like what Warhol said, “Don't read your reviews, weigh them.”'

You recently turned down an invitation to be a Royal Academician, while Tracey Emin and others have accepted. Why?
'I've always been like a chameleon or a split personality; I've sort of set myself up as all these different artists, with these different series. Besides, I've never enjoyed any of that stuff, it doesn't mean anything. You'll only get strung up from a lamppost when the revolution comes.'

Apart from your new paintings, you still run two retail shops in Marylebone and Mayfair called Other Criteria, so the production line is not quite over, is it?
'I always feel a bit trapped when a painting goes for millions of pounds and only one person can have it. If you can have that as well as a poster on every student's wall, then you're in a very enviable position. I'd like to do a Damien Hirst for £500 at some point.'

What of the future for the diamond skull, 'For The Love of God'?
'I love it, they had people queuing round the block to see it at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and while we tried to do a world tour it got complicated because it's not completely sold and the insurance is tricky. Now I've decided to try and get a space in London and put it on permanent display. It just needs to be seen.'

And what about your transformation of Toddington Manor into a museum?
'I've stopped work on it for a while as it's costing money and no one knows what the market is like but we've done a lot down there. It's a lifetime's work.'

You're showing your works at the Wallace Collection among the old masters. How do you want to be remembered?
'All art is there to distract you from the empty room you're living in but if somebody looks at an artwork and they're thinking about it the next day it's pretty fucking good. I definitely worry that I'll end up as the artist who made all that great early work and then no one was interested in the late work, but at the end of the day, you've just got to please yourself and hope that people get it. At least paintings are easier to shift -even in a recession people like paintings.'

'No Love Lost: Blue Paintings' is at the Wallace Collection from Oct 14 2009-Jan 24 2010. Damien Hirst is also showing in 'Pop Life: Art in a Material World' at Tate Modern until 17 Jan 2010 and at both White Cube Gallery venues from Nov 25 2009-Jan 30 2010.

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