Contemporary Art

Damien Hirst: commodity and the readymade

“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”, which is the extravagant title that Hirst gave to his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, has become one of the artist’s most notorious statements. Alongside other high-profile pieces such as Tracey Emin’s bed, the shark has become emblematic of the 90’s BritArt movement and its ethos.

The initial shock factor of the artwork, especially when seen in its original context at the 1992 Saatchi exhibition of Young British Artists, might have made it seem like a radical and exciting, if controversial, novelty. Conceptually however, as is usually the case, it was not without precedent. In employing a prefabricated object (in this case a shark) Hirst emerges at the tail-end of the readymade tradition in 20th century avant-garde art.

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Since Duchamp’s urinal first provoked outrage when he attempted to exhibit it in 1917, artists have been exploring the potential of the readymade object as a critical tool, pushing the boundaries of what we call “art”. We can think back to Minimalists such as Carl Andre with his piles of bricks stacked on gallery floors, to Pop Art in the 60’s with Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and rows of soup tins, even to Jeff Koon’s balloon animals and displays of household objects in the 80’s. For many decades artists have been asking the same question: what separates art objects from other objects in the world?

Hirst upholds the tradition of the readymade, but with one noticeable change. Where previously artists had used ordinary, commonplace, often industrially produced objects, Hirst uses the opposite – extraordinary objects, such as the shark. By substituting the likes of a cardboard box for the frightening, visceral melodrama of a 13ft long tiger shark in a glass tank, suspended as if it were still swimming, still alive and dangerous, Hirst has brought a new dimension to the avant-garde device of the readymade. That is to say, he has transformed it into a spectacle.

This is hardly surprising. For the YBA’s, who can be thought of as the first superstars of the art world, spectacle was everything. It was intrinsic to their image and concept. “Sensation” was the title of their 1997 group exhibition because this is what they caused; in the press and in the media, in the dusty citadels of arts institutions, in the casual-gallery-goer public who loved to hate them.

The spectacle is especially important to Hirst, it is the common denominator in all of his work. This spectacle is not something derived solely from the objects he chooses – although as we have seen with the shark, this is always part of it – but is generated from the aura of media celebrity which belongs to the artist himself, his artistic status which he has made into a brand.

Backed by advertising guru Saatchi, the YBA’s became experts at selling their art as a projection of themselves; a luxury commodity with a price-tag to match. It is this clever commodification process which makes Emin’s bed, not much more exciting than the one you woke up in this morning, worth £2.2 million. It is what makes Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull (which the artist himself played no part in making) dare to ask a price of £50 million.

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The much inflated value of these readymades, of what are essentially still just objects (albeit in the case of the jewelled skull, valuable ones) is symptomatic of what Marx described as the fetishization of commodity. Marx warned of losing the real value of human labour as a by-product of the estranged economic relations we experience within a capitalist consumer society. It is tempting to use Hirst’s skull to illustrate his point.

In regards to the shark, however, the spectacle is not quite as shallow or straight-forward. One of the elements that makes it an alluring and desirable object (or product) is the strange title Hirst has given it. A title which perhaps becomes the shark’s most evocative aspect. It is beautiful and poetic in its clumsiness: “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”.

The phrase is simple and chimes with the infallible truth, revealing in a second the folly that underscores the human condition: that we are born to die and can never come to terms with that fact. For me the title transforms the creature, no longer a fear-inspiring monster it becomes sad and forlorn. Isolated and remote and trapped there in death till the end of time (or at least until it rots away and has to be replaced, as in 2006, but the sentiment stands).

The theatrical cruelty of the object is no longer the shark as an agent of death, but that of death itself, of the promise of death. And as we look at the shark in this new light it becomes almost heart wrenching to behold, engendering that feeling of pathos which Hirst will later perfect with another of his formaldehyde projects: a cow and its calf in separate tanks and severed in half entitled “Mother and Child (Divided).”

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In these “Momento Mori” works we realize we are not just looking at animals in tanks but at ourselves, at our own mortality. The artist has shamelessly and brilliantly brought the nihilistic glamour and tragedy of death – as a timeless, universal and sublime truth – into his spectacle. In Hirst, it seems, anything and everything can become part of the commodity.

To Hirst’s staunchest critics he is merely a savvy player of the contemporary art game with no real or authentic talents to speak of. It is certainly true that he is a far cry from that romantic artist prototype – the inspired, misunderstood genius labouring his whole life for little reward – he is rather a businessman and an entrepreneur. But maybe we should stop to wonder if this is not just a natural consequence of our times, a reflection of the increasingly materialistic world artists must negotiate, a world which beckons its own kind of artistic genius. In this context that question which has hung around since the dawn of modernity, that question of “what is art”, has become even more problematic.

Whilst no one has held back on their criticism of Hirst over the last decades (he has been variously named a con-artist, a fraud, and just simply bad) this has done nothing but help bolster his exposure and consequentially add to spectacle of his personality and his art, cementing works like “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” into the history books of the future.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Exhibition review: Saatchi’s “Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America”

“Pangaea” refers us back some two hundred million years, when the young planet was home to a vast super-continent in which Africa and South America fit snugly together like two jigsaw pieces. It is this vision of a united prehistoric utopia  – of transcendent global connections – which has inspired the latest exhibition at the Saatchi gallery, London.

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Of course these continents are now separated by nearly 3000 km of Atlantic ocean and any link between the two contemporary cultures is no more established because this was once not the case. Yet in seeking to draw some underlying parallels curator Gabriela Salgada makes an important point about the increasingly globalized and ubiquitous nature of the art world and its audiences; an art world which no longer concedes to national or even continental boundaries.

The exhibition consists of 15 artists, some already well known and others not so, who are diverse and exciting in their approaches but linked throughout by recurring themes and often returning as in the following examples, to questions of civil war, migration, colonial pasts, political unrest and socioeconomic inequality.

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The exhibition’s initial showstopper is Rafael Gomezbarros’ Casa Tomada“, a giant ant installation comprising of 440 insects each half a meter long, which swarm and cluster upon the gallery walls in the first room. The spectator, suddenly dwarfed by the experience, might be initially alarmed, delighted, even amused by the sight. Yet on closer inspection the ants are not what they seem; their bodies are made from casts of human skulls bound together with bandages, their splayed legs wiry and skeletal, the combination of materials used (fiberglass with coal and resin) give them a rusty, decaying yet tough and resilient appearance.

Gomezbarros in fact employs the ant as a metaphor for the migrant worker.  Ordinarily the ant is viewed as a pest but can also be understood in terms of its strength and tenacity as a species (they are able to carry many times their own body weight and labour in order to support large and complex colonies). Here as they swarm together, perhaps fleeing from danger in their erratic clusters, they represent the plight of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes, and specifically the refugees from Gomezbarros’ native Colombia, which has suffered from more than half a century of civil war. The artist’s work draws our attention back to the suffering of asylum-seekers which goes largely ignored by the international community and by bringing these homeless, nameless individuals back into the public eye Gomezbarros attempts to make the invisible visible and give those that are silent a voice.

 

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Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s “Demoiselles de Porto-Novo” series of photographs are similarly loaded with meaning. His images of bare chested women, wearing traditional ceremonial masks and residing in the  doorways and corridors of colonial-style 19th century African mansions, attempt to reverse our expectations of the gaze and the Eurocentric understanding of seeing and being seen.

As unashamedly naked and confrontational as the prostitute in Manet’s “Olympia“, and as potentially treacherous as those in Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the women in these photographs are beautiful, elusive, alluring yet dangerous and disconcerting. They subvert notions of not only sexual, but racial ownership, and deconstruct the power relations embedded within a history of colonialism and slavery in the West African Republic of Benin.

 

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Ibrahim Mahama’s “Untitled” installation consumes a vast space with dirty, torn, sewn together coal sacks (commonly known in Ghana as Juke sacks). Like the ants, the size of this work has an almost debilitating effect, looming upwards one imagines being trapped in an oppressive, gloomy cave. The material looks like it could be leather, or skin; a gigantic flayed carcass. The sheer quantity and weight of the sacks and the compilation of so many, meticulously sewn, reminds us of hard and grueling labor – the blood, sweat and tears – which remains in many parts of the world the beating heart of the economy.

These Juke sacks, the staple of African market places, are imported by Ghana Cocoa Board but then reused for charcoal and to transport other commodities. Each bears various scrawled markings which tells the story of if its movements within the trade system and thus each becomes a material document for the chain of supply and demand amongst the people of Ghana.

 

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Aboudia’s vast acrylic and mixed-media paintings, 7 of which are on show at “Pangaea“, give contemporary political violence a historic and monumental scale. This piece “Djoly du Mogoba” responds to the 2011 electoral disaster in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when the presidential incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after loosing the elections, and wide-spread violence ensued. The artist was forced to take refuge in an underground studio at the time.

In this giant, frieze-like image, white faced soldiers stand in a row like ghoulish automatons equipped with large weapons. It is hard to tell but they might be children- the child soldiers who also fought and died in the Second Ivorian Civil War. They are interspersed by red faces with grimacing orange teeth, perhaps some kind of devil creature, or death masks, waiting ominously in the shadows for fate to take its turn. Aboudia’s painterly technique is cartoonish and child-like  but with none of the corresponding naivety. His brush marks are angry, red drips down the top part of the canvas like blood.

As with Gomezbarros we get the sense in this art work of the anguish and the indignation of those who watch their home nations get torn apart by civil war. However like the giant ants, Aboudia’s figures are also resilient, defiant, insistent on life even in the face of death. It is this which gives depth to Aboudia’s painting and in fact to all the artworks in this exhibition; through whatever hardship and adversity people are facing across the globe, the hopeful and tenacious human spirit remains.

Overall the exhibition succeeds in presenting artists that, despite the variety of their work, are surprisingly in-sync and create a fascinating and dynamic dialogue with each other. Needless to say that has nothing to do with the mythical unison of a prehistoric super-continent, but rather down to a thoughtful and vibrant selection of contemporary, international artists for whom geography now poses no limits.

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America” is showing at the Saatchi gallery until the 2nd November 2014.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.