When I was a kid, my grandfather and his friends would go hunting almost every weekend during the shooting season, as much for the trophies as for the meat. I never liked the moth-eaten, glassy-eyed stags’ heads with big antlers that decorated the walls of his office and were the visible proof for his marksmanship. To me, they looked unbearably sad. I never for one moment thought of them as art.
Well, of course they’re not art, they’re trophies. However, by means of some mysterious process dead, preserved animals become art — at least, when the name “Damien Hirst” is attached to the products. His famous shark in formaldehyde comes to mind, as well as rotting cows, sheep, maggots and other corpses; if nothing else, the price tags clearly define these pieces as art. A recent exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills and London, Superstition, evoking stained glass windows and French cathedrals, looks mildly pretty at first, until I read that each of these paintings consists of thousands and thousands of dead butterflies. The blurb on the gallery website calls them “a symbol of the beauty and inherent fragility of life”, but all I see is sadness — just as with my grandfather’s stags-heads. I don’t see any meaningful exploration of the symbolism of life and death — only frivolous superficiality. And that goes also for another recent exhibition of his called New Religion, at All Hollows Church in London, which “includes an altar holding a cedar cross studded with gem-like pills, a child’s skull and a heart wrapped in barbed wire and pierced by needles and razor blades, cast in silver, and a large carved marble pill”. Yawn.
Damien does have a sense of humor though, I have to hand it to him. Apparently, US customs officials gave him all kinds of trouble when he tried to clear a British cow that was preserved in formaldehyde; he had to convince them that it was art and not food. Recently, he used the same ambiguity to his advantage: Mexican customs tried to tax some heavy machinery that he needed to import in order to build some art pieces for an exhibition in Mexico. He didn’t want to pay all this money, put the tools in glass cases, and claimed they were art. As in the case of the 2001 exhibit in London where a janitor threw away full ashtrays, half-filled coffee cups, empty beer bottles and newspapers strewn across the gallery because he thought it was rubbish when in fact it was an art installation by Damien Hirst, we have to rely on his word to know whether it’s art or not.