Hirst, Damien

Hirst, Damien
▪ 1997

      On Nov. 28, 1995, Damien Hirst was awarded the Turner Prize, Great Britain's most prestigious award for contemporary art. Whether Hirst's work indicated a new direction in British art was an open question, however, for while other avant-garde artists continued to work with traditional materials, Hirst's chosen means of expression for his best-known works was animals—dead or alive. In an exhibit at the Tate Gallery following his short-listing for the 1995 Turner (he was also short-listed in 1992), Hirst presented some of his classic pieces, including "Mother and Child Divided," a work consisting of four glass-and-steel tanks containing the severed halves of a cow and calf preserved in formalin, an aqueous formaldehyde solution. Some critics loved his work, while others accused him of striving only for shock value. Regardless of critical opinion, the Turner Prize established Hirst as one of Britain's most important new talents.

      Hirst was born in Bristol in 1965 and grew up in Leeds. In the early 1980s he moved to London, where he worked in the building trades before studying art at Goldsmiths College. His early work included a series of dot paintings, as well as mixed-media sculpture. His career received a boost in 1988 when British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi attended an influential student show curated by Hirst. Saatchi subsequently became the leading collector of Hirst's work, purchasing a number of pieces, including "A Thousand Years," which consisted of a large tank containing a box of maggots, an electronic bug zapper, and a rotting cow's head on which the surviving flies laid more eggs.

      In 1994 Hirst organized a show for young artists at the Serpentine Gallery in London, "Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away. . . ." His contributions included "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," which consisted of a glass tank containing a 4.3-m (14-ft) tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde, and "Away from the Flock," a lamb suspended in a similar tank. The show was a resounding success and garnered enormous publicity for Hirst, particularly when another artist poured ink into "Away from the Flock" and renamed it "Black Sheep."

      Hirst attempted to stage a major exhibition in New York City in September 1995, but his plan for the centrepiece of the show—a display of dead cows that had not been preserved—was forbidden by the New York Health Department. He returned to New York in 1996 with a new exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery. Entitled "No Sense of Absolute Corruption," this show presented some of Hirst's classic dead animals, as well as his newer work, including a series of large paintings done by pouring paint on a round canvas and then mechanically spinning it at a high rate of speed. Hirst also directed several short videos, notably a music video for the British rock group Blur. (JOHN H. MATHEWS)

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▪ British artist
in full  Damien Steven Hirst 
born June 7, 1965, Bristol, Eng.
 British assemblagist and conceptual artist whose deliberately provocative art addressed vanitas and beauty, death and rebirth, and medicine, technology, and mortality. Considered an enfant terrible of the 1990s art world, Hirst presented dead animals in formaldehyde as art. Like the French artist Marcel Duchamp (Duchamp, Marcel), Hirst employed ready-made objects to a shocking effect, and in the process he questioned the very nature of art. In 1995 he won Tate Britain's Turner Prize, Great Britain's premier award for contemporary art.

 Hirst grew up in Leeds and moved to London in the early 1980s. He began his artistic life as a painter and assemblagist. From 1986 to 1989 he attended Goldsmiths College in London, and during this time he curated an influential student show, “Freeze,” which was attended by the British advertising mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi (Saatchi, Charles). The exhibition showcased the work of a group of Hirst's classmates who later became known as the successful Young British Artists of the 1990s. Hirst's reputation as both an artist and a provocateur quickly soared. His displays of animals in formaldehyde and his installations complete with live maggots and butterflies were seen as reflections on mortality and the human unwillingness to confront it. Most of his works were given elaborate titles that underscored his general preoccupation with mortality.

      Hirst's later work included paintings made by spin machines, enlarged ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, and monumental anatomical models of the human torso. His references to other artistic movements and artists were many. The common format of massive glass vitrines, for example, relied on the precedent of minimalism, while his use of found materials and assistants in making the work links him to other artists of the era, such as the American Jeff Koons (Koons, Jeff), who purposefully demystified the role of the artist's hand. In addition to making art, Hirst wrote books, designed restaurants, collaborated on pop music projects, and experimented with film.

Additional Reading
Exhibition catalogues include Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), Damien Hirst (1991); and Saatchi Gallery, Damien Hirst: Pictures from the Saatchi Gallery (2001). An exhibition catalogue from a show that Hirst curated is Damien Hirst and Ian Jeffreys, Freeze (1988).

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Universalium. 2010.

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