April 3, 2012

Beautiful Inside My Head Forever

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Peter Blake, the artist behind the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, recently updated the iconic cover art in celebration of his 80th birthday. Alongside Blake’s friends and family were contemporary British icons like Damien Hirst.Yes, the artist who made millions immersing dead animals in tanks of formaldehyde. He is a mainstay in discussions about what exactly counts as art, considering many cannot decide whether he is a genius or a conman. Notable Hirstsian exploits: He counts on a 1,500-strong army of assistants to execute most of his work, like his interminable series of spot paintings. During the 2008 financial crisis, he broke auction records when Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, a collection of his new works, was sold at Sotheby’s in London for nearly $200 million. Just last week, Hirst’s sketch of a shark, hammered out in 30 seconds in the back of a car, fetched $7150. Some are unfazed that the hurried sketch fetched 15 times its estimated price. After all, the shark drawing involves more artistic skill than immersing a shark in a tank of formaldehyde. Besides, wasn’t Picasso also feted for his child-like drawings? Hirst isn’t exactly Picasso. By many accounts, Hirst is, at best, an average painter who is capable of executing extremely hideous paintings (which are tellingly missing from his Tate retrospective). Nonetheless, I am a fan of Damien Hirst. I like his work for the same reason I like supermarkets and certain 90s rock bands.Over winter break, I encountered a few of Hirst’s works at the White Cube booth at Singapore’s ArtStage. I don’t recall the names of the paintings. What I do remember is the expectation that I would be awed. I suppose I was star-struck. I went up to one of his butterfly paintings and paused for the longest time, soaking it all in, waiting for magic of some sort to happen. I stared at the wings of the creatures, arched and splattered with paint, and felt a surge of unease. I wondered if the work was faintly sadistic. Then I thought that it couldn’t be because using dead butterflies in art, even if it meant tearing them apart, was not much different from taxidermy.There was also a spot painting for sale. I expected to be blown away by the price tag, and I was. I spent 10 minutes approaching and then retreating from the painting. I wanted to be struck in a profound way. Sometimes the colors swirled and glinted in different ways as I changed my orientation. But I could not judge if the work was beautiful. It was, well, ordinary. It was exactly the kind of thing I would buy from an inexpensive furniture store, the kind of print on mugs and table cloths. I was underwhelmed by Hirst’s works, at first. But that was not the strange thing about that incident. I did not grow up in Britain, and I obviously had no part in the wave of Cool Britannia that saw BritPop dominate the airwaves and swept Tony Blair into power. Contemporary Asian works dominated the art fair and yet the works that spoke to me most were Hirst’s and those of his fellow Young British Artists.This is not unusual for me, since I know nothing about Asian art. I confront this whenever I go to a museum or talk about one, because I inevitably get directed to the Asian art collection once I tell the person I’m talking to where I come from.Therein lies the attraction of Hirst’s work. It is dazzling in its simplicity. You don’t need a significant amount of cultural or historical knowledge to appreciate his work in a deep way. Or maybe it’s the sleek, clean look of his serially reproduced work. It seems so predictable (well there is only so much more ostentatious you can get after making a diamond-encrusted human skull), that you just might be surprised when he does something different. It challenges and comforts at the same time.At any rate, it’s always a pleasure to read the poetic and grandiose titles he gives his work. He wisely christened the famous shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.Is Hirst a modern day Warhol or a conman? I’m not too bothered by that question. I’m glad that the 2012 Olympics has once again put the spotlight on Hirst since the Tate Modern has scheduled a blockbuster retrospective of Hirst’s work. Hirst’s work is ostentatious and daring, just as it is arbitrary and ordinary — these traits might just make it live forever.

Original Author: Daveen Koh