Art

Diamond Skulls and Thai Princesses in London

Last week, while in London, I visited the Tate Modern, the U.K.’s premier modern art museum. I went to see the Damien Hirst retrospective, a collection of the English artist’s “greatest hits” from the past twenty-five years, which is showing as part of the Jubilee year celebrations.

Hirst is often referred to as “one of the most prominent artists of his generation”. Many have strong opinions about his work, which is, if nothing else, often highly controversial. For example, Julian Spalding, a leading art critic and former museum curator has referred to Hirst’s work as “con art”. Germaine Greer once said that Damien Hirst is more brand than artist, “because the art form of the 21st century is marketing”.

Hirst himself has undoubtedly made the most of his talents, whatever one may think of them, becoming one of history’s most commercially successful artists. At age 46, he is worth an estimated US$300 million, raked in from global sales not just of artwork but also merchandising, the range of which is quite staggering in both scope and chutzpah.

At the Tate Modern gift shop, Hirst’s creations are replicated on everything from $2 key-rings to a $50,000 plastic skull. Hirst appears to take great pride in his rampant commercialism, seeing it as an integral part of being a modern-day artist. In his own words: “You get the Mona Lisa and then you get the postcards, the T-shirts, the mouse-pad, the earrings and the mugs.”

Hirst’s work, for me at least, is best described as a collection of conceptually driven, larger-than-life installation pieces. The 70 pieces on display at the Tate Modern in various ways astonished, shocked and disturbed me; provoking thought and living in my mind long after I left the exhibition, which is, after all, I suppose what “art” is meant to do.

In one room of the exhibition you will find one of Hirst’s most famous works, rather pompously titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, but otherwise more commonly known as the pickled shark. It consists of a complete four-metre long tiger shark, suspended for all eternity in a massive glass tank filled with formaldehyde.

In a similar vein is a whole cow and its baby calf, both sawed in two lengthwise, with each half preserved in an over-sized formaldehyde-filled box made of clear glass. Somehow, this work (it is at least rather straightforwardly called “Mother and Child, Divided”) is meant to question the nature of unity, the traditional image of mother and child subverted by the fact that the two are not only separated from one another, but kind of from themselves as well. Personally, as I walked between the two halves of each animal and saw up close their perfectly preserved but bisected innards, I was too busy focussing on not throwing up my lunch to think about much else.

Other rooms exhibit Hirst’s renowned spot paintings, and multiple life-size medicine cabinets, arrayed with a painstakingly assembled assortment of pills, surgical instruments and drug packaging. One room is occupied by “In and Out of Love”, an installation piece that makes use of live butterflies which hatch, mate and then die on the floor of the gallery. In another room there are a series of what look to be giant stained-glass windows, made up of the wings of thousands of butterflies, meticulously laid out in intricate and entrancing patterns.

A Thousand Years” is a sealed glass vitrine that stands two metres high by four metres wide, in which a severed cow’s head lies on the floor in a pool of congealed blood. A swarm of flies live their entire life cycle inside this perfectly self-contained ecosystem – they are born, feed on the cow’s head, and then die (assisted in this last aspect by an Insect-O-Cuter), for all to see. Or as Hirst himself put it, what’s on display is “a life-cycle in a box”.

And a bit further along, “Black Sun” makes inventive use of the leftovers. A huge black wheel that looks like it is made of burnt rubber or tar is mounted on a wall. On closer inspection, it turns out that it is composed entirely of the bodies of millions of flies, all rather grotesquely glued together into a textured black mass. What struck me most was the sheer strangeness of it all. I am not sure how many times in my lifetime I will be able to read on the little label that describes the medium of a major work hanging on the wall of a world-class art gallery, the words: “flies and resin, on canvas”.

The undisputed star of the show, however, is “For the Love of God”, which is on separate display away from the rest of the exhibition, in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. The UK Sunday Times describes this piece as “the most gorgeous visceral experience available to diamond junkies”.

It is a platinum cast of a human skull, set with 8,601 dazzling flawless diamonds (over 1,106 carats). When it originally went on exhibit in 2007, the asking price was a mind-blowing £50 million, which made it the highest amount ever paid for a work by a living artist (although there is some controversy as to whether it was ever actually sold – a consortium of unnamed “businessmen”, which turned out to include Hirst himself, were later identified as the buyers).

In an accompanying video, Hirst explains how he came to name the skull. Apparently, when he told his mother of his crazy art schemes – like producing a diamond encrusted skull – she would say: “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?

The Tate Modern is located in what was, until 1981, a working power station on the south-side of the River Thames that has now been magnificently converted into a series of galleries and exhibition spaces. The Turbine Hall, which once housed the main electricity generators, has become a five-stories tall empty space, perfect for showing large installation pieces.

A black cuboid structure the size of a small house had been erected right in the middle of the Turbine Hall, inside of which “For the Love of God” was on display. It looked remarkably small in the vastness of the Turbine Hall, and reminded me in a strange way of pictures of the black stone Kaaba that stands at the centre of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. Which was perhaps not accidental, given the sense of “pilgrimage” that was created as I was made to queue up outside the exhibit, anticipation rising as I slowly snaked forwards towards the entry doorway along with the rest of the crowd.

Like in the finest nightclub, entry to the exhibit was regulated by two heavy-set security guards in sombre black suits, and once finally inside, I found myself being funnelled into a pitch black passageway, fumbling my way along, completely blind. And then, I turned a corner and entered an inner sanctum – the holy of holies – where at long last I got to see “the skull”. It was set in a clear glass box, at head height, lit-up by four sharp narrow beams of light. Everything else – walls, ceiling, floor – was completely black, so the skull appeared to be even more sparkly and dazzling than it is, and as if it was almost floating in the blackness.

It was unadulterated mass-market theatrics of the highest order, of which Disneyland would be proud, and was brilliantly effective: the lady entering just behind me audibly gasped as she laid eyes on “For the Love of God” for the first time.

I enjoyed the exhibition immensely, but one thing niggled at me, and that was the constant descriptions of Hirst’s work as being iconic. Hirst himself describes on his web-site the pickled shark as being “one of the most iconic symbols of modern British art and popular culture in the 90’s”, proving if nothing else that artistic talent and bashfulness don’t necessarily go hand in hand. To be fair though, almost every web-site, newspaper article, commentator and critic will remind you of the same thing: when viewing a Hirst piece, no matter what you may think of it, you are looking at something that is so much more than just a work of art infused with a sense of weirdness and theatrics. You are also privileged enough to be gazing upon something that is “iconic”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines iconic as being a “person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration”. And I just couldn’t help thinking to myself the whole time: is an outrageous, beyond excessive jewel-encrusted skull really iconic? Is this really representative of anything, or worthy in any way of veneration?

A few days later I spent my Saturday strolling through the Camden Markets, a collection of covered markets and open-air shopping areas around the canals to the north of Regent’s Park. It is a vast shopper’s paradise, with literally thousands of stores and stalls, selling all manner of art and crafts, bric-a-brac, antiques, clothing and accessories. Apparently over 100,000 people visit Camden Markets each weekend, making it one of London’s top attractions.

As it was, what with the images of Hirst’s dead flies and supposedly iconic diamond skull still fresh in my mind, the visit to Camden Markets turned out to be an extended walk through a landscape of iconography.

Everywhere I looked it seemed as if images that have become symbols of our era were staring me in the face. In some cases, this was quite literally – John Lennon, Che Guevara and Muhammad Ali looked directly at me from rows of printed t-shirts. Poster shops paid homage to so many of the defining moments of the past century: Robert Doisneau’s famous picture of two lover’s kissing in Paris; a lone Chinese citizen holding up a battalion of tanks in Tiananmen Square; Barack Obama’s “We Can Change” election campaign posters. And then there were even more t-shirts, plus endless shelves of bags and mugs and tea towels and random objects of every imaginable shape and size, covered with images and snappy slogans that referenced everything from Star Wars (“Abuse the Force”) to the internet (“No, I am not on F****ing Facebook!”) to the Queen (“Keep Calm and Carry On”).

At one open-air stall selling antiques and nick-knacks, I noticed that a cordon of big, burly Asian men was surrounding the stall. They were all dressed in identical dark suits, looking incredibly fierce with military grade buzz-cuts and stone-set faces. As one fellow bent over I noticed that a pair of white gloves was neatly tucked into his back pocket, snuggling up just so against the holstered pistol that was bulging under his jacket.

Apparently, I had just stumbled across one of the Thai Princess Royals, who was in London and out for a spot of weekend shopping, accompanied by her security detail. However, unlike her entourage of conservatively attired muay-thai professionals, HRH was the epitome of style – tight denim jeans, perfectly coiffed hair, diamond-bling jewellery and designer sunglasses. The stall’s proprietor buzzed around her, beaming with delight as she proceeded to acquire half of his stock, a small army of minions swooping in to immediately scoop up and whisk away any item which the Princess even half-heartedly pointed at.

I was transfixed as I watched the Princess – on the one hand, she was strikingly beautiful even from a distance; but on the other, her sense of entitlement and the unrestrained conspicuous consumption on display was incredibly vulgar.

I was so engaged watching the Princess that it was a few minutes before I noticed that a quite sizeable crowd of mainly Thais had somehow gathered around me, seemingly from nowhere. They were all standing silently, straining their necks to watch the Princess shop.  Some of the onlookers were clearly Thai tourists in London, but a good number were wearing aprons and uniforms that suggested they were local workers from the market. Many of those around me were pressing their hands together in front of their chest in the Thai symbol of respect, and repeatedly bowing at the waist in the direction of Her Royal Highness. For her part, the Princess suspended her shopping spree just long enough to wave quickly to her subjects. At which point two young shop-girls standing beside me began hyperventilating with excitement.

It reminded me of the Eddy Murphy film “Coming to America”, in which Eddy plays Prince Akeem of Zamunda, who travels to America incognito in order to find a bride. In one scene, the Prince is recognised outside the urinal at a basketball game by a popcorn vendor, who also happens to be a citizen of Zamunda. The man immediately falls to his knees before the Prince, proclaiming “this is the greatest day of my life” (his companion then asks the Prince “who was that?” to which Prince Akeem replies: “oh, just a man I met in the bathroom”).

Well, it seemed a lot like that to me right then, standing there amongst a crowd of Thai onlookers, watching a Thai Princess shop for antiques at one of London’s outdoor markets. I couldn’t help but notice the look of sheer joy and excitement in the eyes of those around me. Young or old, it was more than just a case of celebrity spotting, and these good folks had dropped everything and come running, simply to catch a glimpse of their beloved Princess.

Later, I was wondering around the Stables, as the name suggests a set of old stable buildings that have been wonderfully converted into a covered mall of small shops, forming part of the extended Camden Market precinct.

Tucked away deep in a back corner of the Stables I came across a store selling children’s toys. I only noticed the store as I was passing by because its facade consisted of an eye-popping display of assorted inflatable cartoon characters.  Spiderman and Superman were there; hanging alongside them were inflatable versions of everyone from Kermit the Frog to Nemo (the fish); from Mickey Mouse to the Kung Fu Panda. There was even an inflatable Star Wars storm-trooper.

I went inside to see if I could find some gifts for my children. The store turned out to be deceptively large on the inside, and had the musty, romantic atmosphere of an old-fashioned toy shop. Floor to ceiling shelves were crammed to overflowing with toys of all sorts, things were hanging from the roof as well, and chaotic piles cluttered up the aisles.

Even so, as I got to the very back of the store I was most astonished to find, sitting imperially on a low shelf, a perfect plastic replica of “For the Love of God”, the very same diamond-encrusted skull I had seen only a few days before at the Tate Modern. Just that this particular version of the skull had a slit in the top of it, so that it was now a kid’s money box. How ironic, I thought – the world’s most ostentatiously excessive piece of art, turned into an object with the supposed purpose of inspiring children to save up their pocket-money.

But at least I had proved for myself that Damien Hirst’s work is, indeed, worthy of the label “iconic”. Iconic is when your face is printed on a mass-produced t-shirt for sale in Camden Markets. Iconic is when a crowd of strangers gathers in the street to bow before you as you shop.  And it occurred to me that an artwork has really made it to global iconic status if it is reproduced as a toy money box, to sit on a shelf alongside Barbie doll outfits and boxes of Lego.

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