A Dead Shark Isn’t Art, Stuckism International 2003
In addition to being worth over £100 million, Damien Hirst is, according to today’s Observer, the most powerful figure in the art world today. His new work will cost between £8-£10 million to produce, but when it is complete it will be worth a hell of a lot more:
Damien Hirst’s work in progress is a small, delicate object: a life-size human skull. Not just any skull, mind, but one cast in platinum and encased entirely in diamonds – some 8,500 in all. It will be the most expensive work of art ever created, costing between £8m and £10m.
‘I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death,’ said the artist, ‘What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence? The only part of the original skull that will remain will be the teeth. You need that grotesque element for it to work as a piece of art. God is in the details and all that.’
Of course, diamonds are, for some people, as both Kanye West and Miss Dynamite have been keen to tell us, more than just a symbol of ‘luxury, desire and decadence’:
In many African countries, including Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) diamonds have been, and continue to be linked to terrible human rights abuses either by insurgent groups to fuel conflict and carry out atrocities against innocent civilians or by unscrupulous government who are equally brutal.
In addition concerns have mounted over links between conflict diamonds and money laundering by groups like Al-Qaeda. While the Kimberley Process marks a positive step towards protecting the legitimate diamond industry and consumers from purchasing tainted stones, much reform is needed. KP’s narrow definition of conflict diamonds does not include polished stones and jewelry and could exclude diamonds originating from recognized governments such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. (from Amnesty International‘s website).
Hirst doesn’t seem to be aware of this. As for ‘sticking two fingers up to death’, the writer Saul Bellow once remarked that ‘death is the solid backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything’. He was of course a lot older and nearer death than Damien Hirst, and may have been less inclined to insult that which loomed much larger and darker in his mirror than it does in Hirst’s presumably diamond-encrusted one. Oddly enough, the title of Hirst’s most famous (and inevitably most expensive) work was ‘The Physical Impossibility Of Death In the Mind Of Someone Living’.
That work was his dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, in case you were wondering. Not that I want to patronise anyone here, it’s just that most people, myself included, tend to remember the work itself rather than the name. It’s not clear whether the name is particularly important, given that Hirst once wrote of his own works:
“They’re bright and they’re zany – but there’s fuck all there at the end of the day.”
What strikes me about Hirst’s works is that, although he’s constantly cited as one of the world’s most successful artists, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this in anything other than commmercial terms. I’ve never heard anyone mention his shark piece in any context beyond the fact that it exists and that it cost a lot of money. There is never any indication that it has any meaning for anyone, let alone the artist himself. It has no resonance, it simply does not register in any discourse about art or about the world. Could that not be one mark of failure for an artist?
Maybe his next work should be a huge white diamond-encrusted elephant. He could get those French blokes to help him put it together. Then when they’ve finished we could all read in the newspapers about how fucking expensive the whole thing has been.