Fri. Nov 18th, 2022

Lockdown cultureAs a survey of his work opens amid the snow of St Moritz, the artist talks about his obsession with blood, his disconnection from the art world, and why he misses banter with his army of assistants
Thu 18 Feb 2021 02.15 EST
If anyone should have been ready for this it was Damien Hirst. Thirty years before the pandemic that has made the modern world feel mortal, a young artist from Leeds was putting dead animals in glass tanks and arranging drugs in medicine cabinets to ram home the fragility of life.
Now Hirst is in lockdown like all of us, and as he chats via Zoom from what must be the least impressive room in his house, a small, spartan space with a blue and white cloth over a tiny window, he agrees that that early work suddenly feels very current.
Its a knife-edge between life and death. And thats how it feels now. Its a hopeless thing if youre not careful: the Covid crisis, Brexit. It can make you get into a hopeless place. Im worried about my mum, shes in Devon isolating. Worried about my kids.
At least hes had a nice big lockdown project to distract him. A spectacular survey of his art has just opened in St Moritz, Switzerland, that he orchestrated entirely by social media and phone. The image that holds me most is a towering painted statue of a man with his skin peeled off to reveal the internal organs bright blue aorta, red-veined heart, brown liver, sausage like intestines all framed against the blue sky and white mountains of an Alpine vista. He appears buried up to his loins in crisp clean snow. Id love to be there in person, dwarfed by this 21-foot-tall colossus called Temple, one of the variations on the theme of human dissection that started with his statue Hymn (1999-2005). But I can only explore Hirsts Swiss show on my screen. And Hirst is in the same boat.
A seaweed-sprouting giant Hirsts The Monk. Photograph: Felix Friedmann/©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021
In fact, he says, Ive never been to St Moritz. But I know where everything is there. Its like when I used to play Tomb Raider in the early days, and I went into a square in Venice and recognised it from the video game.
Not for nothing is the show titled Mental Escapology. Hirst had fun directing its creation over FaceTime, obsessing over heights and placings of exhibits in the towns Protestant church and watching anxiously as the crew struggled to install a seaweed-sprouting giant called The Monk in the middle of a lake before it froze.
I like it when people love my art. I like it when they hate it. I dont want them to ignore it
I was mildly surprised when Hirsts PR got in touch to offer me an interview. I have been very rude about him on occasion: I once wrote that his paintings resemble the art of a dictator surrounded by lackeys who are too scared to tell him hes talentless. But the truth is Im a fan who gets cross when he fails to live up to my expectations. When I first saw his shark swim towards me at the Saatchi Gallery it was like nothing I had ever seen it bit into my soul. Its nice in the strange intimacy of Zoom to be able to tell him the truth, that when my own mother was having heart surgery in the 1990s I wandered the hospital seeing his vitrines in my head. Today I still think hes a great sculptor, even if hes a lousy painter.
I ask Hirst a question I have always wanted to put to him. Why did he never move on from putting animals in formaldehyde to pickling people?
I flirted with the idea, he says. He thought about getting a male and a female corpse, cutting them in half and fitting them together with his penis inside her like the Leonardo da Vinci drawing! I say. Its true he intended to recreate a drawing by Leonardo that opens up a man and woman to show the anatomy of copulation.
But Hirst never did work with human bodies. I much prefer it when youve got this neglected thing like a sheep, which is meat youre thinking why am I feeling empathy? Thats a great thing because you should. Because its not just meat. That image of the neglected carcass of a sheep recalls his 1994 work Away from the Flock, a sheep in a vitrine with roots deep in Christian imagery. Catholicism, he confesses, pervades how he sees things.
Rooted in Christian imagery Hirsts Away from the Flock. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates/© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021
I was a Catholic until I was 12. Then my parents got divorced and my mum left the church. I loved the imagery: the blood. But bring in God, and I turn into a scientist and say there is no God. You can still see the blood in his art, shining against the Alpine snow from his colossal science toy where biology and metaphysics collide.
The art world has gone from idolising Hirst in the 1990s to sneering at his recent work, including his vast museum of fake archaeology at the Venice Biennale. The art world? Ive lost sight of where they are. He looks at the people at private views through gallery windows I dont know who the fuck they are, drinking wine and eating cheese. Someone I really like is Banksy. Jay [Jopling, his dealer] said to me hes not important in the art world. I said, but hes important in the world.
And that is what Hirst wants to be, although he doesnt share Banksys polemical edge. He reckons Picasso created true political art when he painted Guernica.
I think maybe Picassos more political than I am. Things would have to get very bad before I would start to focus on an event. Although he did create a pro-EU work that just said IN and that went well
Hirst isnt interested in the art of politics, only life and death. This is why one event that has gripped him is the pandemic. Last spring when children were putting rainbow art in windows he too made a rainbow, from digitised butterflies, as an edition to support the NHS. In the autumn he opened the first exhibition of his own art at his Newport Street Gallery, the captivating, and free, white space hes created in south London, offering a survey of his early work with all its images of death and medicine. There was even a vitrine stuffed with blue surgical masks. Medical science offers immortality in small doses, he says. And yet weve been driven to medieval methods of quarantine and lockdown by a virus that caught our scientific civilisation napping.
A bit of a Houdini Hirst in his Newport Street Gallery, which shows his early work. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates/© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021
Anyone hostile to Hirst, unconvinced even by his simple NHS support, might reflect that if anyone could escape to a private island, he could. But he hasnt. His lockdown in London has made him realise something about the way he usually works. Its well known that he employs large teams of assistants to realise his ideas, and he makes no apology for that no one expects an architect like Frank Gehry to lay his own bricks but when the first lockdown started and all his helpers had to go, what he missed was the banter.
Ive retired more into my art. To be painting in my studio. Absolute isolation, no one there. He has a show of psychedelic paintings of pink cherry blossoms opening in Paris this spring: another pumped-up lockdown antidote.
Perhaps its the isolation and anxiety you just have to get through it that makes him talk so warmly about his mother and his early life in Leeds. She was his first audience and made him realise he could get a reaction with art: it all started with giving my mum a drawing and shed put it on the wall. As he grew up and discovered modern art, he got a taste for provoking people and tried it out arguing with my mums friends down the social club.
Yet one work of art that influenced him in Leeds as a teenager wasnt modern or contentious at all. It is a bronze statue of a portly figure carrying a beer barrel, given to the city by its twin Dortmund in 1979, and known locally as The Fat Man With a Barrel. Anybody my age in Leeds knows what that is. As kids theyd all meet by The Fat Man With a Barrel.
Damien Hirst review just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water
This slightly surreal, contextless image thats part joke, part community treasure strikes him as a powerful example of what public art can be. And public sculpture is Hirsts true vocation. At a time when everyones arguing about who statues should and shouldnt represent, Hirsts statues come from another place, dreamlike and hard to explain. The Monk out on the ice of Lake St Moritz is grotesque and beautiful, and the fact its weight seems to be supported on the ice by magic adds to the mystery.
It is, of course, an illusion. Hirst had to supervise, on his computer, the installation of a pontoon to support it. His show also includes beach balls floating in the void, suspended by air jets. It is a fantasy of freedom that he has orchestrated in lockdown. You have to be a bit of a Houdini, he says.
Something about the crystal clear images of his frozen winter dream of an art show speak to what we all need in this circumscribed moment a bit of mental escapology. Hirst at his best makes art that stays with you, like a bone in the throat, or a fat man with a barrel.
I like it when people love my art. I like it when people hate my art. I just dont want them to ignore my art.
Damien Hirst, Mental Escapology, St Moritz until 24 March and online. Damien Hirst, Cherry Blossoms opens at Fondation Cartier, Paris on 1 June.