On the way to Work
by Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn

Book Reviews

ISBN: 978-0-571202-57-7

Published by Faber & Faber

The vulnerable underbelly of an artist in a pickle

So “the hooligan genius of Soho” turns out to be a nice Catholic boy from Leeds who really wanted to be a painter but ended up pickling sharks. He may have done drink and drugs and bared his bum in the Groucho, but he always “really loved this idea of art maybe, you know, curing people”. As with that other Catholic boy, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst is obsessed with death; and, as with Warhol, his mythological status reaches far beyond the art world to those who wouldn’t know a Pollock from a Picabia if it stood up and bit them. Just mention the word shark and someone will say knowingly “Ah! Formaldehyde”.

Part of the generation of Goldsmiths College students that includes Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, Hirst and his mates appealed to Charles Saatchi’s theatrical tastes and were shown in 1992 under the label Young British Artists (later branded “YBAs”). Even in his second year at Goldsmiths, Hirst was changing the face of the British art scene with Frieze, an exhibition he organised of his contemporaries at Canary Wharf.

In On the Way to Work (the title taken from paintings by Bacon and by Van Gogh), Gordon Burn has conducted a series of taped interviews with Hirst dating from 1992. It’s a tedious, lazy format that fetishises as holy writ every repetitious expletive uttered by the subject. Hirst has the habit of contradicting himself, so on one page he’ll be going hell for leather that “the less I feel like an artist the better”, only to insist later that he’s nothing if not an artist. But among the verbiage is revealed a man, still only in his early thirties, struggling with fame, money and a serious commitment to art; though at times he sounds more like an Alan Bennett “Talking Head” than a cutting-edge artist.

His greatest aesthetic influence was not, as might be expected, Marcel Duchamp but Mr Barnes, an old eccentric whose flat near Hirst’s childhood home was filled with years of collected detritus. As the enfant terrible of the private view, one might imagine he was of one of the “painting is dead” school. In fact, Hirst admits that “I’m kind of old-fashioned”.

His heroes are Bacon, whom he considers the last great painter, and Matisse. Bacon appeals for his violence and energy, Matisse for his colour. It seems odd, but Hirst thinks of himself as a colourist, a fact he insists is demonstrated by his spot paintings and the packaging in his medicine-cabinet installations. He is, he admits, quite a Romantic.

Yet looking back over a decade, this shouldn’t seem surprising. The fragility of existence has always been his big theme. He puts things behind glass (think of Bacon’s encased Popes) and creates modern icons. A shark becomes The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the life cycle of flies feeding off a dead cow’s head becomes a metaphor for resurrection and the notorious Mother and Child Divided – a dead cow with her calf suspended in formaldehyde – plays on the traditional iconography of religious art.

Yet in these pages Hirst comes across as more vulnerable than macho. He hates being alone and hardly conforms to the stereotype of the lonely artist in a garret. He was involved in setting up Pharmacy – a restaurant in Notting Hill, west London – and had sallies into the music world. “I’m a Gemini! I want to fucking share everything with everybody and have a party for the rest of my life.” It’s all part of wanting to be famous, to be the best drawer in his class at school, to be loved and live forever.

Maybe it’s because his dad left when he was a kid; and he wasn’t even his real dad. Now he is Damien Hirst the myth, he’s finding it more complicated to be Damien Hirst the man. He doesn’t just want to go on churning out “Damien Hirsts”. “You have a thing ahead of you in the future, what you’re going to become. You have this thing. You’ve always got it; you’ve always had it. Well, I don’t have it any more. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have it any more. No one.”

“I want the world to be solid,” he says. “But it’s so fluid and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.