Bryan Hemming

short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography

Damien Hirst conducts huge sacrifice

Damien Hirst, eh?  What a card! The conceptual artist (to the rest of us a conceptual artist is an artist who can’t draw) showed us the meaning of the word ephemera in an exhibiton entitled In and Out of Love earlier this year. I just read about it somewhere.

Now, if you thought ephemera were postcards, and bits of paper, and stuff, they’re not just that. Even though he doesn’t use the word, Damien showed us the ephemeral nature of nine thousand butterflies by having them flap round an art gallery till they became exhausted and died. A sort of latter-day Aztec sacrificial indulgence modified so as not to offend contemporary sensibilites, I suppose. Besides, even if the Tate did allow human sacrifice, you can’t get hold of enough willing virgins these days.

It’s not often you get the RSPCA moaning about art exhibitions. That’s more than enough to get you lots of newspaper column inches, in itself. But they did get in a bit of a tizz over Damien’s butterflies. Something he could’ve easily avoided. Known mostly for his penchant for featuring dead animals in his art – usually slaughtered humanely in licensed abbatoirs – he could’ve dropped the butter bit and gone for ordinary household flies to pacify them. Animal rights organisations don’t get so hot and bothered about people mistreating ordinary flies. And they’re a lot easier to come across. I mean, he must see a fair few of them darting about when he works on rotting carcasses. And maggots. Wriggling ones.

Apparently the tropical butterflies featured in the exhibition were left lovely flowers and bowls of fruit to feed on. Ordinary flies aren’t nearly so fussy, buckets of rotting offal dotted about any old how would’ve kept them going. Of course, art lovers might not have been quite so tempted to go into a room buzzing with thousands of flies if only for reasons of hygiene. But considerations like that wouldn’t have stopped a real conceptual artist.

I remember seeing one of Damien’s early dead animal exhibitions at The Serpentine in 1994. The gallery stands in the midst of London’s leafy Kensington Park Gardens, where J. M. Barrie conceived Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. It was very invigorating to get out of all that fresh air, with all those damned birds chirping, and into the room with the huge glass tank containing a dead sheep, I can tell you.

If we didn’t know what we were looking at, Damien left helpful little hints telling us how our perceptions were being challenged by his masterpieces. Coincidentally, I was there just minutes before some madman vandalised the dead sheep work in a tank by pouring black ink into it. Now there’s a concept I do find difficult to grasp: vandalising a piece of conceptual art comprising a hulking great aquarium containing a dead sheep suspended in formaldehyde. Pity I missed it, London’s Independent reported:

On 9 May, Mark Bridger, an unemployed artist from Oxford, removed the top of Hirst’s tank, poured black ink into it and changed the title to “Black Sheep”

Rather than an act of vandalism, surely it was a conceptual art act in itself? At least the offender had a background in art as an unemployed artist, and appears to have demonstrated a keen interest in the subject. Some potential employer might have construed the act as a willingness to participate and offered him a job as a conceptual artist on the spot, had the incident been recorded in a more sympathetic light.

Of course, the concept of an unemployed artist could even be regarded as a work of conceptual art in itself. Funny you never hear Vincent Van Gogh being described as an unemployed artist, even though he wasn’t gainfully employed for much of his life. He did work as a missionary at a mine in Belgium for a while. There’s another piece of conceptual art in the making.

I bet Damien Hirst never worked as a missionary in Belgium. Or anywhere else for that matter. Certainly, he coudn’t have worked as a Hindu missionary, not with the dead cow concept. Or a Buddhist.  And he’d definitely have his work cut out trying get a job as a Jewish missionary/artist. Unless the dead animals were kosher. That rules out becoming a Muslim missionary/artist on similar grounds. But maybe he could overcome that by using pork. I mean buyers aren’t expected to eat his art. Or are they?

Now, there’s a fascinating thought for the week.

Copyright © 2012 Bryan Hemming               Conil

Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t rate Hirst. Click here to read what Dave Hickey, doyen of American art critics, thinks.

As far as I know, this painting is not one of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. And neither was he the first to explore the concept. Both Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely were experimenting with what became known as op-art in the 1950’s and 60’s. Of course, if Damien wants to claim it as being one of his I will only be too happy. 

4 comments on “Damien Hirst conducts huge sacrifice

  1. NFN Kalyan
    November 11, 2016

    i am a conceptual artist that can draw. does that make me the best kind?


    • Bryan Hemming
      November 11, 2016

      It certainly puts you ahead of the field, in the same way being able to play an instrument puts a musician ahead of the field, but it really depends on how well you can draw, and your intellectual capacity.

      Having looked at your site you seem extremely talented, and can draw very well, though I would not label you a conceptual artist. Yes, in the same way any work of art starts with a concept, you are a conceptual artist. But, to my mind, the vast majority of conceptual art has come to mean something rather different today.

      Thanks for dropping by, I’m pleased you gave me the opportunity to view your work.


  2. Diana Trimble
    May 27, 2014

    Love this one! I’m not a fan of Hirst’s work at all and had an argument with a friend who was at the butterfly show and defended its beauty to me. Hirst has also nicked most of his best ideas from other, probably unemployed, artists. He just takes what they did and exaggerates it. The skull thing he got from John Le Kay, who could not afford to put 50 mill in diamonds on his so it got a bit ignored. The large animals in formaldehyde thing he got from another artist friend who sent him a trinket from Mexico, where they will put tiny sharks in blocks of lucite as some kind of souvenir. Hirst just did it really big. Artist of the Scam, is what I say.


    • Bryan Hemming
      May 27, 2014

      Agreed. The Dada movement were way ahead of Damien Hirst. What’s interesting about them is that they had ideals and believed in things. Hirst deludes himself and is only interested in making money.

      I’m just working on an article about the psychedelic art of the 1960s and 1970s, its origins and influences, including the influence of drugs, particularly LSD and mescaline.


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