Damien Hirst: interview

Damien Hirst has turned collector and is exhibiting Warhol and Bacon alongside his YBA pals. Time Out talks to him about art, money and death

  • Damien Hirst: interview

    Hirst among equals

  • The first time I interviewed Damien Hirst was in a shit-coloured tower block in Brixton; a vast wall punctured by windows, it had broken lifts and landings strewn with rubbish. Hirst sat on a sofa full of holes that looked as if it had come off a skip. It was the early ’90s; he’d organised three exhibitions of work by himself and fellow Goldsmiths graduates in derelict factories in Docklands (the now-legendary ‘Freeze’ was in the summer of ’88; ‘Modern Medicine’ and ‘Gambler’ followed in 1990). Charles Saatchi had bought his sculpture ‘A Hundred Years’ and commissioned him to pickle the famous shark for his first exhibition of Young British Artists, but the recession was dragging on and Hirst’s chances of becoming solvent looked remote.

    At the time, there were a lot of artist-run spaces, so the three exhibitions were unusual only in their scale. Anya Gallacio filled the factory floor with a ton of oranges and Michael Landy installed acres of orange boxes covered in fake grass to resemble greengrocers’ stalls. Yet Hirst’s level of ambition, generosity and conviction was crucial (he persuaded Anthony d’Offay and Charles Saatchi to support the shows). It’s no exaggeration to say that, without him the YBA phenomenon might never have happened.

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    Damien Hirst with'Bent Lady' by John Currin

    We’ve done several interviews since then and, sitting in Science, his offices in Gower Street, we reminisce about the old days. ‘That was Hugh’s flat,’ says Hirst nodding in the direction of his old friend Hugh Allan who has been his business partner since the mid-’90s. ‘I’d never been interviewed before and I remember being amazed by the idea of being able to say something that would appear in print.’

    His phenomenal success as an artist is common knowledge, so are his forays into the restaurant business; less well known is the degree to which he has diversified, setting up a production line to make artworks reminiscent of Warhol’s Factory, publishing books and buying art and property. Operating more like a company director than a traditional artist, he likens himself to an architect running a practice: ‘I’ve started referring to myself as “we” – “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” – which means I sit in a chair and watch, while they do the work! I employ about 100 people – 40 on spot paintings, 40 on butterflies, 40 short-termers. It’s too many; it feels more comfortable at about 60, otherwise I lose my involvement. I need to know everybody, to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. I’m worried about resentment so I encourage people to do their own thing, but they say “No, we want to work for you!” This time next year I’ll be stopping the spot paintings. It’s difficult to stop an endless series but I need to clear some ground; they fill up too much time. They feel old and, if you get bored, you should stop. In Devon I’ve got a painting studio, so I might go full circle and start working hands-on again.’

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