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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Damien Hirst: Shockaholic
Damien Hirst: Courting controversy once more

Artist Damien Hirst has apologised for comments he made in a video essay on the events of 11 September. He is of course no stranger to shock.
"What I like is that contradiction: a really gorgeous photograph of something horrific." When he said this, Damien Hirst was referring not to 11 September but to his adolescent fascination with illustrated pathology books.

His "interest in wounds" included pictures of burns victims and those affected by venereal disease. "The photographs are so delicious - you are in people's pants."

His taste for the macabre has clearly not left him. But to shock is part of Damien Hirst's stock-in-trade.

A viewer examines Hirst's sheep exhibit
Hirst wants to provoke not merely to shock

He grew up in Leeds, the son of a motor mechanic who left home when he was 12. His mother claims she lost control of Damien at an early age.

He became something of a delinquent, arrested twice for shoplifting. Despite his poor circumstances, he stayed on at school to take A-Levels and gained an E in art.

It was enough to get him into a local art school. He didn't stay for long and left to work, for two years, on London building sites before being admitted to Goldsmith's College.

Though he was by no means the most talented of his year, Damien Hirst was streetwise.

He put on his own show entitled Freeze, as a way of getting his exhibits into a gallery. It worked in spades.

The advertising mogul and art-collector, Charles Saatchi, visited Freeze and within a year had bought two of Hirst's medicine cabinet exhibits.

The sheer grotesqueness of his work was to make Damien Hirst a household name, even among those who would never contemplate setting foot in an art gallery.

Charles Saatchi
Charles Saatchi, the man who "made" Damien Hirst
It was he who put a shark in a tank of formaldehyde. This was followed by a shoal of fish, then sheep, pigs, cows and calves in various states of dismemberment.

One of his rotting cow's head exhibits also contained maggots, newly-hatched bluebottle flies and an "Insectocutor" to electrocute them. It won him the 1995 Turner Prize.

Hirst says his intention was to force his viewers to examine their and society's attitude to death, and the relationship between man and animals, art and reality.

"I want to make people think, not to totally shock the shit out of them for the sake of it."

Even current Damien Hirst sceptics found his early work intriguing. "His glass boxes and stage sets were quite interesting; repellent but curious," says David Lee, editor of the arts magazine Jackdaw.

"But they don't make me think any more about mortality than a dead dog in a lay-by."

Others clearly disagree. Hirst was embraced not only by Charles Saatchi but also by such establishment figures as Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery.


You have to step over the boundaries sometimes to find out where they are

Damien Hirst
Under the deft guidance of art dealer, Jay Jopling, and with a considerable capacity for self-promotion, Damien Hirst soon became rich and famous.

With his legendary capacity for drink and drugs and his association with numerous celebrities, he appeared to blur the distinctions between the worlds of pop music, fashion and visual art.

With fellow-travellers like Tracey Emin, he had changed the status of the conceptual artist.

His more recent work has become less unconventional, but no less lucrative. He derives most of his income from collages, smaller sculptures and his "spot" paintings; white canvases covered with equal-sized coloured spots.

One of them is destined to be landed on Mars next year on the European Space Agency's Beagle 2 spacecraft.

Damien Hirst is now 35 and lives on a Devon farm with his Californian wife Maia and their two young children.

He has been involved in two London restaurants (Quo Vadis and Pharmacy), he has directed the pop group Blur's Country House video, and he helped create Fat Les, the conceptual supergroup famous for its football anthems Vindaloo and Jerusalem.

Hirst's bisected cow
Hirst's bisected cow: "repellent but curious"
"He was the person who understood that visibility is everything in the art world of the 1990s, and that people will assume you're good if you've been given enough air-time," says David Lee.

"Now we want to see something substantial, something that we're not just told is good."

There is a distinct feeling that Damien Hirst's star is waning. The paintings have not received anything like the acclaim of his cadavers.

That star may rise again though, next year, when Charles Saatchi's new gallery, in which he will figure prominently, opens in the former GLC headquarters on the banks of the Thames, a stone's throw from the Tate.


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