In Buenos Aires the Crime Museum has a room of glass boxes of decapitated heads preserved in formalin. And dotted around the globe are other museums whose musty rooms hold jar after jar of miniature horrors: body parts of forgotten races, condemned characters and unrecognisable organs. So there is a case to be made for Damien Hirst, with his menagerie floating in their own tanks of formaldehyde, being less of an iconoclastic contemporary practitioner than an artist belonging to two long-standing and venerable traditions: the preserver-embalmer and the creator of the “still-life”. His offerings place him within the milieu—or the mindset—of collectors who roamed the world looking for the one-off and the exotic to pickle and preserve. Thus there is little to separate Damien Hirst’s shark from the legendary racehorse Phar Lap’s heart; not in its method of display, and not in its notoriety.
Still life is very much with us. What was once alive and is now dead lives forever on the canvas or on the taxidermist’s shelf. Damien Hirst’s notorious tiger shark in a glass tank is no more repellent, and perhaps less arresting, than a seventeenth-century Northern European canvas with rotting fruit, snail-trails and decomposing skulls. Such images belonged to a variety of still-life painting called “memento mori” (be mindful of death) which has over the centuries reminded us not to get too sentimental about nature, whose intention is to return us to the compost heap at its earliest convenience.
The recent two-part auction of Damien Hirst’s artworks by the London branch of Sotheby’s elicited a frenzy of speculation in the art world. Surely this was a first—an artist snubbing the hallowed white temple of the contemporary art gallery and going directly to the marketplace. Even the insouciant American artist Jeff Koons (who Robert Hughes once called “the starry-eyed opportunist par excellence”) had not tried anything so audacious. Further, would this be the unmasking of the artist as poseur? Not quite. The two-part sale achieved more than £111 million. The item that caused the greatest excitement and disquiet when it was first exhibited in 2007—a diamond encrusted skull—was nowhere to be seen. But first a short roll call of what was.
Hirst’s Golden Calf (which sold to a telephone bidder for £10.3 million—an auction record for the artist) might have had some resonance for those whose biblical studies, specifically the reading of Exodus, have furnished them with visceral themes from another time and another place. When the Israelites, irritated and exhausted in the wilderness, backslid, fashioning and worshipping a golden calf instead of the deity vouched for by Moses, he thundered down the mountain with his stone tablets of rules and regulations, and all hell broke loose. Does a whippersnapper like Hirst know the story of the Golden Calf? One assumes he does. And perhaps he is so far ahead of the pack that he is basking in the delicious irony of the Golden Calf being worshipped all over again—2300 years later, and still for perverse reasons.
The Kingdom, Hirst’s tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde, sold for £9,561,250, The Black Sheep with the Golden Horn sold for £2,617,250, a foal, pickled in the manner of the former three, for £2,337,250, but surprisingly, The Incredible Journey, a zebra in formaldehyde sold for £1,105,250 (less than the low end of its estimate) and Die, an executive swivel chair, complete with ashtray and cigarette butts—guaranteed to invoke nothing more than the gilded grind of the high-rise glass office—sold for £385,250, slightly less than its upper estimate.
There was no shortage of pretty paintings—starbursts of colour, elements of kaleidoscopic movement, geometric arrangements of shapes reminiscent of the canvases of the 1960s, and small butterflies sailing and floating on a single colour. Most of these sold for under a million pounds, but sell they did. However, one of Hirst’s trademark multi-coloured coin-spot paintings fetched a mere £133,250, less than Australia’s own Charles Blackman (the last man standing from the Melbourne antipodean scrum) sees for his some of his canvases today in the local auction rooms.
Hirst first came to international prominence in 1997 when the Royal Academy in London played host to an exhibition called “Sensation”, which showcased the controversial and provocative works which had made a handful of young British artists ascendant during that decade. Among the exhibits was a maggot-infested cow’s head by Hirst, Marc Quinn’s bust composed of 3.8 litres of his own frozen blood, Tracy Emin’s embroidered tent-bed titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, and Chris Ofili’s Madonna portrait decorated with elephant dung. The exhibition travelled to Berlin in September 1998, where it was so popular that its stay was extended to January 1999.
Thus the show’s reputation preceded it when it arrived in New York in September 1999 to be hosted by the Brooklyn Museum. Promotional material included a “health warning” stating that the contents “May cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety”. This would not have been substantially different from the kind of sensation any out-of-town fifteenth-century visitor might have experienced while visiting the frescos promising nameless tortures in the lantern of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. No matter. New York’s Mayor Giuliani put his resources where his anger was, and in best New York style, it became a football for the politicians and a silk purse for the lawyers. He threatened to withdraw the city’s annual $7 million subsidy to the Brooklyn Museum and evict it from its city-owned building.
A Washington Post reporter gleefully claimed that while British novels and plays were still about class war, British artists, “as Sensation revealed at stupefying length, are still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous”. He called one work “strictly adolescent stuff, Marcel Duchamp for dull twelve-year-olds”. As the Brooklyn Museum and the Mayor of New York were preparing to do battle in court, he observed that the “only people to emerge from this fracas unmutilated will be the lawyers”. “It doesn’t take an art-hating philistine to figure out that this is a fight the Brooklyn Museum should never have picked in the first place—least of all over so pitifully lame a show as Sensation.”
One belated discovery was that the indefatigable advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, along with the auction house Christie’s, and the artists’ dealers, had all contributed to the underwriting of the show. The New York Times thundered: “Exhibit was heavily financed by those with much to gain.” The calculated provocation of much of the promotional material had the expertise of a masterly ad-man behind it, and unsurprisingly a number of works in the show had been drawn from Saatchi’s private collection.
Thus the worst fears of those sturdy American art critics from the 1960s, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, came to pass. A juggernaut of art movements which had begun with Pop Art, Assemblage and Conceptual Art would find a massively popular base, instructed not by the wise admonitions of the critics, but by the blind monsters of commerce, advertising and public relations. To make matters worse, Greenberg scoffed that newer American art writers had embraced “a French tradition of gibberish” to inflate the works at hand.
When Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a human skull was first exhibited last year at London’s White Cube gallery, the promotional line went like this: “Hirst [continues] to explore the fundamental themes of human existence—life, death, truth, love, immortality and art itself.” The skull had already been spoken for (it had been bought by a consortium, which included Hirst himself, for £50 million).
Creating a skull (whether in diamonds or pigment) is not a particularly original act. We have only to think of Holbein’s celebrated painting of 1533, in which he stretched a skull sideways like chewing gum and floated it—shadow-like—at the feet of his two French ambassadors, or the dozens of paintings of St Jerome cradling a skull gently in his gnarled hands. Australia’s own Ricky Swallow patiently carved a skull (along with a bird in a sandshoe, and a flathead in a tyre) from a pale wood called jelutong, which had the novelty and dignity of being crafted with his own hands, not an army of studio assistants. So we must assume that Hirst is seeking something more than the pleasure of creating an original object. It is unlikely he cast the platinum skull, and impossible for him to have set it with diamonds. These are skills particular to jewellers.
Our home-grown art critic and New York resident Robert Hughes dismissed Hirst’s foray as “tacky” and “absurd”. (Hughes himself once dreamed of being an artist. One of his works surfaced at an auction in Sydney recently, selling for $160.) He added that the price of the works had been deemed more important than any meaning inherent in the art itself, and quipped that Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde was the “world’s most over-rated marine organism”.
What then, does this novel auction at Sotheby’s reveal about the art world—in particular, the contemporary art world? First, it will not signal a rush by artists to bypass traditional art gallery spaces in a stampede to the auction room, because it is these galleries which are the seed beds of a budding artist’s reputation. Only an artist with a stellar track record (however dubiously that may have been achieved) would feel unassailable. Second, dealers will always be a presence in the auction room, if only to make sure that their own artists’ prices are maintained—if not boosted—by buying the works themselves if necessary. Some Australian dealers are no strangers to this strategy. Third, fiscal carnage amongst the grey suit and silk tie set does not immediately translate into funereal conditions in the art marketplace—at least not immediately. Finally, there will be young artists (that is, under forty-five) who will be given a dazzling example of what can be achieved with a marketing and promotional juggernaut—that, it would seem, is where the real artistry lies.