More Talk With: Damien Hirst

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Hirst in July with one of his “spin” paintings/PHOTO: Pal Hansen for TIME

Let’s get back to that conversation with Damien Hirst. Today we talk about his past work and his decision over the past few years to return to painting — not canvases turned out by his scores of studio assistants, which is how most Hirst paintings are produced, but work done by his own hand. None of these have been exhibited yet, though he plans to show some next year in Kiev and London.

LACAYO: Where did you get the idea for putting work inside glass tanks?

HIRST: I was doing some installations that were quite fragile. So I put a big box around them. And when you put a box around something you steal that space; you say this is the space for my sculpture. I was also really into Minimalism. I got into that and conceptual art at Goldsmiths [the London college Hirst attended in the late ’80s]. The boxes are all about Sol Lewitt with a dead animal in the middle.

LACAYO: When you first thought about doing the big shark, did you mean for it from the start to be about death?

HIRST: I’ve always been kind of morbid.  I always used to draw severed arms and that kind of stuff at school. But I don’t think it’s about death.  I think it’s more about life. 

LACAYO: People talk about your work sometimes in terms of shock value. But the truth is there’s not much in what you’ve done that’s really shocking, not compared to somebody like, say, Joel Peter-Witkin, whose photographs can have severed body parts in them.

HIRST: You just have to watch any movie made by Hollywood and you can see that in the first ten minutes 20 people have been gunned down, slashed and murdered. That’s the world we live in. And in England, probably in America as well, people also just don’t like dead animals, do they? I’ve had many people come up to me and say: “Don’t ever do a cat. Please don’t do a cat. Do a human but don”t ever do a cat.”

LACAYO: Do you think of yourself at all as being a particularly Britsh artist?

HIRST:  Well, Bacon is a great hero, but I think the world’s just so much more international now. The world’s become American, really. 

LACAYO: Did you know Bacon? In recent years you’ve been incorporating his imagery directly into a few of your works. In The Tranquility of Solitude (For George Dyer) you made a variation on one of the triptychs Bacon did after his lover’s suicide, using three tanks of formaldehyde. But you substituted slaughtered sheep for the figures of Dyer. And you also own five Bacons.

HIRST: I didn’t know him. I used to hang out in the same clubs as he did. I used to go to the Colony Room. But I was kind of in awe so I never really spoke to him. I was very young when I went there. I would always get drunk. He could really be vitriolic as well.

You know that Bacon wrote this letter? When I had my show at the Saatchi Gallery, I got a phone call from the gallery and they said, “Oh Bacon’s been in and he spent an hour in front of your sculpture, A Thousand Years.” And I said, “Oh, yeah, that means about five minutes and maybe he liked it.” But after he died this letter surfaced. He wrote a letter to Louis Le Brocquy, the Irish painter, and said he had seen this piece and he really liked it. But I never spoke to him.

LACAYO: When did you discover his work?

HIRST: When I went to art school he was one of the first painters I got into. It was like album cover art, it was gory, high impact, when you’re young you love that kind of stuff. And dark. And then I started painting and everything I was painting was kind of sh-t Bacons, really bad copies. So I gave up really.

LACAYO: But now you’re painting again?

HIRST: And now I’m painting again and they’re very much like Bacons. I’ve been doing it for about two years. I was horrified at first. I thought I would have learned something, but I picked it up exactly where I left off and I had two years of doing bad paintings.

LACAYO: Why did you start painting again?

HIRST: I don’t really know why I do anything I do, I’m just going on.  In a way I started to think that conceptual art is for younger guys.  And a lot of what I had been doing was a celebration of things in the culture.  I think I grew out of that in some ways.  You start thinking you’re going to need something else, something more personal and quieter and darker.  A few friends of mine have died.  You lose the edge to celebrate. After a period of high flying and loving life in a really big way and wanting to scream out, then you have kids. And when you have kids you become a bit more cautious.  And for me, I need a big kind of switch around rather than something I can gradually move into. 

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I used to get lost in the blank canvas, because when you can paint anything, I never knew what the hell to paint. Collage was what I always liked. You found ready made things and moved them around. I think a lot of the sculptures are like that, a lot of borrowings, a lot of stolen ideas. The spot paintings, the spin paintings, they’re all sort of ways to find a mechanical way to avoid the actual guy in a room, myself, with a blank canvas.

LACAYO: So it was easier for you to think in other media, to think in terms of sculpture or installations?

HIRST: I think I got scared at some point. I’d make paintings I didn’t like and I gave up. Then it came very naturally to do all the other things. But the idea of a painting always meant more. You’re greater in some way if you’re painter, so I always avoided it. But then, just through getting a bit older, I got back around to it. Maybe through watching my kids paint as well. They just chuck it around and not give a sh*t really and you think that’s really what you should do. You just need to paint. It just dawned on me one day that just by doing it, it becomes what you do. Whereas before I’d be looking at all the books on painters thinking, I could never be like this.