Hirst takes life and death issues for a spin | AspenTimes.com
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Hirst takes life and death issues for a spin

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Damien Hirst has made his name as an artist – and as the leading figure of the Young British Artists, or the YBAs, one of the few identifiable current artistic movements – by tackling the big issues. Life and death, and how we stay alive and how we kill ourselves, are constantly in play in Hirst’s work.

And Hirst has distinguished himself by expressing those essential themes in the most inventive, modernist and even jarring ways. Hirst first caught the public’s attention with a piece called “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – a lengthy title for a work that was simply a real 12-foot tiger shark, suspended in formaldehyde. (Hirst has said that the piece would have worked equally well without the shark, which would leave a large tank of formaldehyde.) Among his most celebrated works are the Butterfly paintings, the most notable of which employed a sticky, sweet substance to lure butterflies onto the canvas, where they died and were thus immortalized as art.

Hirst has also done extensive explorations of the pharmaceutical arena. A permanent – and extremely popular – exhibit at London’s Tate Modern is a gigantic room packed full of various medications. Likewise acclaimed was his series of enormous poster prints, done in the style of pharmaceutical labels and advertisements – except with staples of the British diet (“Chicken,” “Sandwich,” “Kidney Pie”) inserted as the names of the drug. And no one has used the cigarette as an art material as prolifically or pointedly as has the British-born 38-year-old.

“If you think about Hirst, the themes of his work – life and death – are the themes that most great art deals with,” said Dean Sobel who, as executive director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, has exhibited examples of Hirst’s work. “He’s dealing with the age-old themes in a very contemporary way.”

Hirst’s recent work, being exhibited and sold at Aspen’s Galerie Maximillian, seems, at first glance, to reflect a far lighter side of the artist known as much for his bad behavior as for his work. “In a Spin, the Action of the World on Things” has, as its most obvious reference, spin-art paintings. The reference brings up memories of childhood, carnivals, and art made for nothing other than the fun of splattering paint onto a spinning surface and seeing what results.

In Hirst’s vision, however, spin art is brought to a higher place. “In a Spin …” is two volumes of technically complex etchings; volume one features 23 etchings, volume two has 14. As many as 10 plates are used for each etching, and the plates are drawn on and scratched with various tools, and layered with lavender oil. The etchings can be precise or scattered, and most are rich in color. There are 68 editions of each volume, and each volume comes in a box that sports an original spin painting by Hirst. The sets also contain the time-lapse photograph that inspired Hirst to begin his spin-art paintings some seven years ago: a photograph of the night sky, with stars seeming to etch lines across the sky.

Looked at from a more informed perspective, Hirst’s seemingly lighthearted etchings begin to connect to his weightier work. Much how pharmaceutical drugs keep us alive and cigarettes kill us, spinning is a fundamental part of the life-death struggle.

“It’s the idea that the Earth is always spinning – if the world stops spinning, we’d all die,” observes Albert Sanford, owner of Galerie Maximillian. “So spinning is the life-sustaining action. It’s a basic concept of life the world must spin. For Hirst, it’s the spinning of the world that controls everything.”

There is still more to the spinning idea. The titles of many of the works are taken from the names of pop songs, and often are heavy on attitude: “Twist and Shout,” “My Way,” “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution.” “We get music from the spinning action – records, CDs,” notes Sanford.

And Hirst’s methods and materials reveal the artist’s obsession with the objects and substances we use to keep our bodies functioning. Hirst made extensive use of syringes to inject corrosive lavender oil into the scratches in the plates for the “In a Spin …” etchings. “He didn’t have to use a syringe. He could have used a lot of ways to apply the material to the surface. But there’s that fascination with the tools of life and death,” said Sanford.

Sanford enjoys the disparities in Hirst’s spin art: between the seemingly lighthearted emotional quality and the ties to Hirst’s more disturbing works of the past, between the surface simplicity and the rigorous technique involved.

“A lot of people have come in the gallery and said, `Oh, I’ve done that, my kids do that,'” said Sanford. “He’s taking a basic, elementary form of painting to elevate a fairly lofty concept. Technically, they’re very well-done. A lot of work actually went into these. Sometimes with contemporary art, there’s not a lot of technical stuff behind them.”

Hirst, a native of Bristol, has been a visual-arts icon for more than a decade in Britain. Several books have been devoted to his work and his musings about his art and influences. He has never shied from getting his art or his name in front of the public; a flotilla that crosses the Thames River has a Hirst-designed exterior.

But Hirst, who studied at the University of London’s Goldsmith’s College in the late ’80s, is having an even further expansion of his notoriety of late. As Sanford says, “There’s a real Hirst moment in Britain.” The Tate Modern bought an edition of volume one of “In a Spin, the Action of the World on Things,” to go with the massively popular pharmaceutical room. (New York’s Museum of Modern Art has also added an edition of “In a Spin …” to its collection.) And across the Atlantic, visual artists can attain a profile that would seem odd in America.

“Artists have a very different platform in the U.K. than here,” said Sobel. “Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin – their comings and goings are followed like a movie star. Damien Hirst is as famous as Johnny Rotten, and for a lot of the same reasons. He’s famous for his bad behavior.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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