I’m having a midlife crisis on Damien Hirst’s behalf.
He turned fifty on the weekend, and from what I’ve seen of people who turn fifty, it’s no cakewalk. It’s when people start buying convertibles, leaving their partners, changing jobs, cutting their hair, and having unnecessary surgery to remove features no one even noticed in the first place. It’s when people say stuff like “but I still feel like a teenager” and “where did my life go?”, along with “I no longer care what anyone thinks” and “it’s so freeing to do feel I can do what I want.” Weird, all this crisis. Turning fifty becomes the impetus for a total life evaluation, a time to take stock of where you are and what you have achieved thus far.
The thing is, for a guy who’s already chainsawed a farmyard’s worth of animals in half and presented them in formaldehyde, what’s left to do when the “I no longer care” moment hits? The rest of the 49 year olds on the planet might be relishing the freedom turning fifty brings, but Hirst has already exhibited a rotting cow’s head encased in a vitrine of flies and maggots. I’m concerned he may have peaked too early.
Perhaps he’s doing life in reverse (or I’m doing him in reverse…so to speak…ahem). The first time I saw his work up close, it was the shark in the tank at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I thought it was the biggest crock of shit I’d ever seen, mostly because it had recently sold to Steven A Cohen for somewhere in the region of $8-12 million dollars and I couldn’t fathom how that could ever have been a thing (little did I know he’d one day try to sell a diamond-encrusted skull for £50 million). “It has a great name though” said my mate at the time. Fat lot of good that added to the value, as far as I was concerned, but he was right. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was an inspired name – especially if you ran it through your head while staring at the creature’s wide open mouth. But I still regarded the whole thing as a bunch of bollocks.
Six years and one fascinating interview with Noel Fielding later, I’ve mellowed in my opinion of Damien Hirst and I suspect, at fifty, he’s mellowed too. I guess if you launch yourself forcefully on to the London art scene with a bratty, anti-establishment tantrum like he did in his curation of Freeze in 1988, then follow it up with a professional relationship with Charles Saatchi that results in the shark in the tank, you’ve kind of hit the confidence level most mid-career artists could only dream of right from the get go. It’s hard to reach the point of no longer caring when you appeared to start from that position in the first place. He’s still the ultimate conceptual artist, but today Hirst’s work is less jarring, more settled in to itself. The shock value of his early pieces has been replaced by a strong sense of respect and deliberation over the world he inhabits. There’s not the arrogance of the mass-produced spot paintings and the “my assistant does them because I can’t be fucked” mentality, nor the lazy sarcasm of works like 11 Sausages. There’s more experimentation and genuine exploration of his artistic ability rather than relying so much on his PR and marketing talents. And although the vitrines of formaldehyde, the skulls and butterflies, and the overarching theme of death and mortality are still present, they’re somehow different. They have purpose.
Oddly, this new approach has made for a sympathetic review of the best of his earlier stuff. Mother and Child Divided, which could so easily be gruesome, becomes melancholic; his butterfly work In and Out of Love is sweet and fragile, and maybe even a little naive. His works now seem eerily beautiful and evocative. They inspire contemplation in a way that doesn’t feel forced or at all contrived. With hindsight, he was probably less an unruly troublemaker than a little ahead of the pack. Kind of like the disruptive class clown who turns out to be the smartest kid in the school. The sharp humour is still evident in his new works, but these days there’s a sensibility that underpins it.
A few years back, on the eve of his career retrospective at the Tate, Hirst said of his career “when you’re young, you’re invincible, you’re immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you’re inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It’s fixed. You can’t change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest.” It was a time of reevaluation for Hirst, not the least because he was on record as saying he’d never want his work to hang in the Tate, and there he was being feted by them. But it had been a throw away line from a then-young artist, and we all know bravado is bullshit in a different frock. He wasn’t to know way back then that he’d end up the richest living artist. I can’t imagine anyone foresaw that in the days when his art practice involved painted cardboard boxes and frying pans hung on walls. But he did and he is, and now that we’re at the point we are, it appears Hirst is less interested in creating art than he is in ensuring his legacy is one that won’t easily be forgotten.
Last year’s major work of a gilded Woolly Mammoth skeleton, Gone But Not Forgotten, was donated to amfAR to help finance their work in AIDs research. This year, having purchased suitable real estate over a decade ago, Hirst is set to open a free public gallery to showcase his personal art collection. Including works by Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin, Banksy, Picasso, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons, as well as artefacts, natural history specimens, taxidermy, anatomical models, and various historical objects, Hirst’s planned Newport Street Gallery will allow him to return to where he first made his mark – as a curator and art appreciator. He’s giving back and moving forward.
Always one to do things differently, Damien Hirst’s 50th birthday will likely prove less the catalyst for an “I don’t care” moment than it will the opportunity to prove just how much he always has cared after all. About him turning fifty, there’s no need for me to worry.
All images, except where noted, taken from Damien Hirst.