Looking at the diamond skull that is the Damien Hirst Skull actually helps to better understand all Damien Hirst art.
“I don’t know art but I know what I like.” Damien Hirst (b. 1965) might agree. This saying, now considered somewhat cliché, has a lot more truth to it than most would like to let on. Particularly those who make their living with the creation, sale and/or criticism of Damien Hirst art objects. The fact is, it is true. More than that, it comes as close to anything to defining the true essence of Damien Hirst art. To eff the ineffable. Something that while impossible, many still try. Often at some great length. Whether any one wants them to or not. And there to remind us of the subjective, often playful, nature of Damien Hirst art have been a cadre of merry pranksters, intentionally lampooning what Damien Hirst art is ‘meant to be’. Beginning with the Dadaists.
While the first generation of may have effectively ended with the death of Andy Warhol, the 21st century has yielded no shortage of self-aware formalists from Sara Jimenez to Tracy Emin. Though in the post-irony culture, few have the sense of playful self-deprecation of a Duchamp or a Yves Klein, who had a color named after himself. Enter Damien Steven Hirst.
And then there is that Damien Hirst skull or the diamond skull. Something that sets Damien Hirst apart, both from traditionalists, and his contemporaries, is the sense of completeness in his work. Much of Installation Art can look, and usually is, fairly slap-dash. One of the biggest risks in the form being the piece won’t ‘come together’ for the viewer. The saying about contemporary Damien Hirst art being ‘30% presentation and 70% explanation’ being based on some truth. A painting of a pipe is not a pipe. A painting of a can of soup is either lazy or brilliant. A 14-foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a clear glass display case is difficult to misinterpret. As is a sculpture of a human Damien Hirst skull also known as the diamond skull constructed entirely out of diamonds. Everyone knows the Damien Hirst skull and his famous diamond skull. Perhaps there is some deep meaning to the Damien Hirst skull or any diamond skull. There may be deeper meanings that can, and inevitably will be applied, but it also is what it is.
There is also a sense of construction. The feeling that Hirst’s pieces aren’t created but built. And the fact is, much like Jeff Koons before him, Hirst does employ many assistants who do much of the heavy lifting. Not that Hirst is afraid of hard work. He spent two years working on building sites in the 1980s. Mostly as something to do between finishing at the Jacob Kramer School of Art and starting at the Goldsmith’s University of London in 1986. Something that helps to explain the vaguely industrial feeling of some of many of his pieces. A fact he made clear, with the title of his first solo show Damien Hirst: Constructions and Sculpture.
This approach has also had its problems. There have been several instances in recent years of people claiming that Hirst plagiarized another artist work. Either in the form of printed criticisms or claims from other artists. In one, rather infamous, case, a claim by a Canadian artist that Hirst plagiarized her pill-shaped jewelry designs nearly went to court, ending in an out of court settlement.
Not that his nods to his working class background – he grew up the son of a single mother in Leeds – and bad press has done much to hurt Hirst’s overall career. While reviews of his work itself have somewhat mixed, The Daily Mail hating him along with everything else aside from the Queen, Hirst has never been short of attention. Something that he seems to actively attract, cultivating a public image to make Sebastian Horsely look benign.
It is to the point that he has made it into the popular culture. Perhaps the most famous instance of Damien Hirst art imitating life as the pilot episode of the tech-themed horror anthology Black Mirror. The episode features a possibly psychotic artist tormenting a sitting British Prime Minister. While the PM has no direct real-world analogs, the artist is unambiguously based on Hirst, in an extreme alternate reality version. The first occurrence, however, was on the Stephen Fry vehicle Absolute Power. In the episode, the PR firm at the center of the show was representing an ‘edgy’ artist whose career is going south. The artist works included displaying jars of his own blood. As well as other assorted bodily fluids. It is decided, fittingly enough, that the only way for the artist to resuscitate his career is to die (faked of course) and cashes in on the sympathy.
Written by T.K. McNeil
Attending art galleries before his age was in the double digits, T.K. McNeil has had a long-standing interest in art. An interest he made official obtaining a degree in Art History form the University of Victoria. Starting out at The Martlet Independent Newspaper, he has had pieces placed in publications as diverse as TechDigg, The Richest, The Spoof UK (as Trey Droll) and PopMatters.
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