Briton uses death as his palette

May 24, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

London -- Damien Hirst is London's leading chain-saw artist. He hacks dead livestock in half.

He split-cut a cow and a calf lengthwise and displayed them in huge, sealed cases of formaldehyde at the 1993 Venice Biennale, like . . . well . . . like sides of beef in a butcher shop. The Venice Biennale is, of course, one of the world's most prestigious art events.

He sawed a pig's head in half for this month's British edition of Esquire. The artist is shown with his chain saw. We see the chain saw in action. Close-up photos of the halves of the split pig's head are printed as the magazine's centerfold, inside-out, as it were, very red against a flesh-toned background. No airbrush has edited out offensive parts to protect the squeamish as the old Playboy used to do.

The whole Esquire production is presented as a fashion layout: Mr. Hirst's $1,200 suit, $165 shirt and $82 tie are all by Yves Saint Laurent, his $950 chain saw by Jonsered and the pig's head by Hunt Butcher, Clapham High Street. Esquire gave him the space. Mr. Hirst dreamed up the presentation, a six-page example of his art.

He's routinely called the "enfant terrible" of the British art world, the artist most talked about, doing the most striking work. He's 28 and from Leeds, the old Yorkshire city, where he saw his first preserved specimens in a mortuary when he was a schoolboy.

"I was just really kind of fascinated by them," he says.

He first floated into national notoriety two years ago with a toothy, 14-foot tiger shark, immersed in its own preservative tank of formaldehyde. He called the piece "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." He likes an expressive title. The shark appeared at the very trendy Saatchi Gallery and launched him into instant tabloid fame.

His latest animal act is a lamb, all woolly and cuddly-looking, floating in a white-framed tank of faintly greenish-tinted formaldehyde. It's in a show that opened this month at the Serpentine Gallery.

Mr. Hirst is curator, and he has chosen 15 artists who share his interests: "fear, loss, hope, death, fantasy," the press release says.

The work he's chosen includes eerie and exquisite photos, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, of the serial killers in Madame Tussaud's waxworks; a flayed, anatomical figure called Virgin Mary, sculpted in wax by Kiki Smith; an orange, fiberglass cast of Rodin's Balzac by Michael Joaquin Grey, hung upside-down from the ceiling; a bicycle packed with plastics and bags by Andreas Slominksi, leaning against the gallery wall as if abandoned by a homeless pilgrim.

'Some Went Mad'

The show is called "Some Ran Away . . . Some Went Mad," the title of an essay by a friend from Mr. Hirst's art school days, Angus Fairhurst, who is in the show with a pair of photomontage works festooned with the little plastic gizmos that hold price tags on clothes in Kmart.

Mr. Hirst calls his preserved lamb "Away From the Flock."

"It's just like a shepherd's thing," he says at the opening. He's leaning against a doorjamb, a polite, easygoing, round-faced guy in a baseball hat, white T-shirt, jacket and jeans.

"There's an allegory that has to do with people and sheep," he says. "It's like: 'You're just like sheep, you do what everyone else does.' I do what I do, and it's different.

"So you're away from the flock in that way. But then I kind of see it so tragic and dead and kind of cute, and looking out at the green grass, which I quite think is good."

The lamb gazes out of its formaldehyde tank onto the greensward of Kensington Gardens. The galley is by the Serpentine, the lake that winds between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

"The piece, I like it," he says. "It's very simple. It's very straightforward. I'd quite like to see it outside actually in a field somewhere, with lambs running around it. Then it really would be away from the flock.

"Away from the flock could be two things, ya know," he says. "It could be a very positive thing where you're doing something better than anybody else. Or it could be everyone has run off and left you and you're left behind. So it's kind of sad and good at the same time."

Not everybody likes it, he says. Londoners are more used to lamb on a menu than in a museum, eating dead meat rather than looking at it. "I've heard a lot of people say it's terrible," he says. " 'Why do you do that to a lamb. Oh my God.' " One free-lance art critic went from words to action, pouring ink into the tank of formaldehyde one recent evening.

"It went completely black," a gallery visitor told Dalya Alberge of The Independent. "You could see the sheep disappear. There were a lot of visitors there. Everyone was bewildered and highly amused. People were laughing."

Mr. Hirst, who already had sold the piece for $37,500, spent the night draining and rinsing the animal in an attempt to wash out the ink. He had no immediate comment. He has said his work "has just got to get people involved. The worst thing is if someone just walks in and out without seeing anything."

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