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Interview British Artist Damien Hirst

Aired July 27, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN HOST: He's the British art sensation who's not strayed far from the media's glare over the past two decades. Once the poster boy for the young British art movement, Damien Hirst has continued to transfix the global art scene with a keen eye for the surprising and provocative.

He rose to prominence in the 1990s for floating dead animals in formaldehyde. One of his works earned him the prestigious Turner Prize. Another earned him a cool $18.5 million when it went under the hammer in 2005. A price that pales in comparison to the $100 million price tag on this 2007 sculpture. The diamond-encrusted skull was sold to the investment group of which Hirst is a member.

But he isn't confined to the art gallery. He's also injected his creative vision into fashion, hospitality, and music. Including his role as director for this music video by Brit-pop band, Blur.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're in Hong Kong with Damien Hirst as we get a personal tour of his first solo exhibition in the region.

Damien, welcome to "Talk Asia". It's great to have you with us today. So, here we are at the Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong and this is your exhibition, "Forgotten Promises". What's the premise of the show?

DAMIEN HIRST, ARTIST: I mean, I just wanted to show things I've been working on more recently. And, you know, there's a few older things -- 2008. But, I don't know, you know, we just had a kind of crazy financial meltdown. So I thought that I'd want to do a show which is a bit more optimistic, maybe, than my usual shows. And I guess -- my mum used to say to me, "Why can't you pain anything nice?" And I've been working on these new paintings of butterflies, which my mum would absolutely love, and I just thought, "Why not take those to Hong Kong and do a show based around that?"

VERJEE: Yes, it's true. They are very innocent looking compared to the work that you're known for, which is macabre and you're known in the West for being quite provocative -- or, I should say, very provocative with your work. In Asia, it's easy to offend people. Do you think the appreciation is here for what you do?

HIRST: I mean, I think, you know, when you go -- when you travel, you know, across continents I think you have to be on the lookout for different meanings. You know, I mean, everybody says all the obvious things like, you know, the number 4 is unlucky, the number 8 isn't, and red is a good color. You know, it's like, "Do the red paintings." Or whatever.

But I think, you know, you kind of have to ignore all that. But you do have to be aware of cultural differences. I mean, I remember I once did a painting, which was of a crack addict who was getting, you know -- somebody who looks fairly healthy -- into five, six paintings where they were getting worse and worse and worse as they, you know, deteriorated into crack addiction. And a Japanese person who was looking at it said, "She seems to be getting very well." They read it the other way. You know, so I think that's a really big cultural difference. But, you know, hopefully, you know, everything's more international and makes more sense than that.

VERJEE: The centerpiece of this exhibition is "For Heaven's Sake". In true Hirstian style, it is controversial. It's a cast of a baby's skull encrusted in diamonds. A baby's skull?

HIRST: Well, you know, everybody dies.

VERJEE: I guess that's true. But parents' groups are obviously up in arms about it. And they say it's --

HIRST: Oh, yes?

VERJEE: You had to know that would happen, right?

HIRST: I mean, I don't think that there's anything sensational or shocking, really, about that. I mean, there's been a lot of press in England saying that, you know, child groups and, you know, are up in arms about it, but I mean, I think that's really made up by journalists. You know, I mean, I would think that anybody looking at it would see that it's, you know, light and the darkness -- it's like a, you know, it's an optimistic statement.

And it's not really, you know -- I mean, the idea, I think, could, you know, raise negative ideas in your mind, but I think when you actually see it, you know, it gives people hope and it's like -- you know, it doesn't seem to be about death at all. It seems to be about life to me.

VERJEE: Take me through the process of working on that piece. It's the tiniest little thing.

HIRST: I mean, you know, I think there's a kind of fragility to it, but also a, you know, a strength. I mean, I bought the skull -- the original skull that it was based on -- from a Victorian collection, because the Victorians were, you know, big collectors of all things natural history, you know, and things like that.

That's what I made it for, was it just seemed -- you know, I wouldn't want to sort of make another version of the skull I'd already made, but this just seemed to, you know -- it just seemed to be -- you know, to be something so fragile, yet, you know, like strong as well.

I mean, I definitely felt the skull kind of looked like the Earth from space, you know. And as the plates in the skull are forming, it's like they're like the, you know, the plates in the earth. So it seems to be a kind of macrocosm of something much bigger and it's, you know, it seems to just be a -- I don't know. It seems to be really optimistic to me, really.

VERJEE: It sort of seems to me to be the baby of "For the Love of God", which was the --

HIRST: I think it might be the parents.


HIRST: It's a bit of which came first, though. Well, you know, I mean, because you kind of think, which, you know, could have been the big skull when it was born. You know, because it goes through that whole process. But it just seemed to me to be completely different. I mean, you know what? I thought the ultimate that you could do was the white diamonds on a perfect skull.

I have a house in Mexico. And, you know, they celebrate death, whereas in the West we sort of try and avoid it or we try not to talk about it. You know, and I always think, well, I was taught to confront things that you can't avoid, and death's a very big thing that you absolutely can't avoid and, you know, you have to deal with it. It seems like it's very isolating and lonely people have to deal with it.

And it seems like, to make an artwork about it, you can do it in a much more shared way or something. And then the, you know, the child's one -- with the pink diamonds being more expensive and more valuable, but becoming more fragile -- it just seems to celebrate something else, you know, something about -- and then, also, there's, you know, being childish. I mean, we're all children, really.

There's a great quote I love by the artist Brancusi. He said, "When we're no longer children, we're already dead." And I think that, you know, it kind of talks about things like that, too.

VERJEE: The names of those two pieces, I think, are also quite interesting. "For the love of God" and "For Heaven's Sake". Were these things that your mum used to say to you?

HIRST: Yes, I mean, they are. You know, they're exclamations, aren't they, of, you know, when you're kind of, you know, despairing. I mean, I have kids myself and I say things like that to my kids now, you know. So it's --

VERJEE: So, you've heard it?

HIRST: Yes, I mean, you know, it's just like -- you know. But there are all those things, you know, like, "Oh, my God" or, you know, when you try and tell your kids not to say "God", which is strange. But then, you know, when you're dealing with a skull and diamonds on that level, it does speak to something spiritual.

I mean, I don't believe in God, but it seems to, you know, I mean -- people have looked at the other skull and they even said, "You do believe in God." You know, and I go "I don't." And they go, "You do, look at the skull -- of course you do." You know. But people read what they want into works.


HIRST: I think, you know, "Jesus Christ" or "God forbid" or "For heaven's sake" or "For Christ's sake" or "Heaven knows", you know, and all these statements, you know, they're all about kind of religion. But I quite like it that it's the -- you know, it says it and denies it that it's about God.

VERJEE: So, what is the process? You sit there putting each little tiny gem on yourself?

HIRST: I had it made by a Jeweler's in London called Bentley and Skinner. A very old jeweler, you know, and they've made, you know, great objects. They're more really associated with quality than cash, you know. So it's not made by, you know, someone, you know, who just is like about bling. So I -- you know, I worked with them over it, but I just -- but, you know, it's just a kind of perfect object. I mean, as much work went into this one as went into the white diamond skull, "For the Love of God".

The amazing thing is that, you know, it's like, you know, to me it's like the Crown Jewels. You know, it's like -- and I'm -- I mean, artists always make art from the things that are around them. And, you know, when I was a student, I didn't have any money and I was looking in the trashcans and making Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg-type collages. Whereas, you know, now I've got, you know, a lot of money. So I kind of thought, well, you know, maybe I could make work on that level.

So it's quite a brave thing, I think -- and a difficult thing -- to get to the point where you can do that. But, you know, I think it's worth it in this piece and in "For the Love of God".

VERJEE: Coming up, we take a closer look at Damien Hirst's latest exhibition. Plus, we find out why he chose anatomy school over art school to learn about the human form.

HIRST: Dead bodies was easier compared to bare ladies, for a teenager.


VERJEE: Damien, I don't' even know where to begin. What is this?

HIRST: It's a sculpture made from a baby skeleton. But the -- in the shape a -- like a cupid, like a winged cherub. But, you know, the Victorians used to -- I've collected quite a lot of Victorian things. But the Victorians, whenever they made a baby skeleton into a figure, they would always do it like a man -- like standing. But, of course, a baby would never ever get into that position. It's always in the fetal position.


HIRST: So I just wanted to kind of put it back into that position, really. And the wings are from a sparrow pigeon, I think, that's been eaten by a sparrow hawk.


HIRST: Because they leave the wings. They eat the whole thing and leave the wings.

VERJEE: I don't know how you know that.

HIRST: Spooky.


HIRST: I've got an old house. You know, near Toddington Manor in the country. And where the roof's off there, you find them on the floor.

VERJEE: Ah, I see. Right.

You've actually become quite known recently for working with butterflies. Talk me through this. How do you do that? Because they were once alive, right?

HIRST: Yes, I mean, I made -- they're quite like the older butterfly paintings I used to make. These are from about 2008. Around the time of the auctions. And there were works like this in the auction that I did. But they were -- it's just spray-painting over the top of real butterflies suck on paintings over and over again. And then, at the very end, the diamonds are put in.

We had these kind of -- when I was a kid, I used to go to a place called Knaresborough, in England, where there's a place called Mother Shipton's Cave. Where people tied things up in the stream and there's calcium in the water and then the water goes over -- there's a waterfall and all the things calcify. So, it's like, as the water goes past, they kind of get petrified and covered in, like, stone. I used to love that.

I suppose it comes from, as well, from Star Wars. You know, when Han Solo --

VERJEE: Oh yes, gets the cryogenic thing.

HIRST: No, he gets locked in, what's it called? Carbonite or something.


HIRST: And he's trapped inside it.

VERJEE: Indeed. Yes, yes.

HIRST: So they kind of look like -- you know, it's optimistic, but it's sort of trapped as well. So there's kind of like optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.

VERJEE: I will always see Han Solo, now, when I look at that.

HIRST: Yes, good.


VERJEE: The mid 90s brought you both fame and infamy, you know, for your penchant for pickling dead animals. It was intended, as I understand it, to get people to talk about life and inevitable death. Do you think that people actually did see it that way?

HIRST: It wasn't really about life and death. I wanted to make art that was real. I didn't want an illusion. I wanted it to be real. I wanted to make people really think and not think about something that wasn't real. You know, I wanted to bring real things into the gallery. You know, I wanted to -- I wanted you to experience the, you know -- I mean, you know, the shark was definitely based on "Jaws".

But I thought I want people to really experience a shark big enough to eat you in somewhere where you don't expect it, or something like that. I mean, it wasn't a painting of a shark or a light box or anything else -- I wanted it to be real.

So, I think that idea of, you know, of it being -- you know, it's really important that it was real. But then, I've seen a butcher walking in Mayfair in London -- I've seen a butcher with half a cow on his shoulder walking into a butcher's shop with people dressed in posh clothes all around him. And I remember thinking, "Nobody's batting an eyelid".

It's all about context. It's like, you know, you can do that in Mayfair, but if it's art and I do it in a gallery, it's like people are going to go, "Oh, my God, what is he doing?"

VERJEE: You've done this in formaldehyde, that in formaldehyde, how much of that stems from the time that you spent in a mortuary drawing cadavers?

HIRST: I mean, I went into the -- It wasn't in the mortuary, it was in anatomy school. But they had bodies, they had dead bodies. But I kind of went in there to back up my life drawings. I was drawing from bodies and not understand the figure and the form, you know. But it is quite strange. I didn't realize at the time that I would end up taking the actual formaldehyde from there, rather than the study, which is a sort of old fashioned thing.

VERJEE: Wasn't it kind of creepy, though, sitting there in the silence, drawing dead people?

HIRST: Well, not really. Because it was, you know, because it was with a fellow student -- it wasn't in the silence, but there was -- you know, there are students who are studying from bodies there. I mean, it's, you know -- I knew that was what Leonardo Da Vinci had done years ago, and Michelangelo -- he studied from the body.

And I was doing life drawing. It was more strange going straight from school into an art school, where a woman just takes her clothes off and sits down in front of you, and you have to draw her and not laugh.


HIRST: Or get an erection. Don't you think?


HIRST: I think, you know, dead bodies was easier compared to bare ladies, for a teenager.

VERJEE: And, I suppose, that would have also contributed to "Him" in 2000 and "Virgin Mother" in 2006. Which are these huge sculptures of insides.

HIRST: Well, I mean, I think as an artist, you are child-like and, you know, you have to think like a child, really. And it's like, you know, looking at the human body or anything, It's like you want to take -- you know, you take toys apart to see how they work. And then kind of breaking them.


HIRST: So, I think there's a lot of -- a lot of that, and I try to put that into the work.

VERJEE: Was there a specific thing that you can point to or a specific time where you said, "Yes, art is where I'm going in my life"?

HIRST: I mean, I always loved art, you know, but I never ever thought that I'd be able to, you know, make a career of it. Because everybody I knew got paid for doing things they didn't enjoy. So, you know, and art was just something I enjoyed. But I thought -- you know, starting to think about that. You don't think about -- what are you going to do? Dig holes for a living? Or, you know, work at a building site or work in a bar or work in a shop -- you know, it was all that kind of thing.

And then I tried to be an architect, but I couldn't -- I was a bit too messy to kind of keep the paper clean. And then I remember thinking -- and then I kind of left school. I didn't know what I was doing, so I was on the dole, unemployed. And then I thought, well, maybe I'll go to art school. But it wasn't really a career choice.

VERJEE: You got rejected, I understand, from several art colleges. But, eventually, you did go to Goldsmith, which is renowned.

HIRST: Yes, the first ones I applied at were kind of wrong anyway, so I was kind of glad I got rejected. Because, by the time I applied to Goldsmith's, I'd actually made a decision that that was where I wanted to go.

Based on, you know, -- it was the only art school in England at the time where you didn't have to choose between painting and sculpture. It was just art course. And, you know, I did both, so I was having to decide -- well, I'm really only going to be a sculptor or a painter, and I couldn't really decide. So, yes. So it was good.

VERJEE: It was when you were there that you decided to put on your own exhibition, "Freeze". Your first spot painting appears. And really pretty and kind of whimsical to look at. What was the thinking behind that?

HIRST: You know, I kind of -- you know, I mean, I always thought that -- you know, I come from a sort of background or -- I always thought that, like, 50s abstract painting was great. You know, like Rothko and De Kooning and this sort of, you know, messy painters. Rolling your sleeves up, throwing the paint around, and doing brown-purple paintings when you're feeling somber and orange-red paintings when you're happy, you know. And, you know, doing that sort of thing.

And I believed that that was like the truth of painting. But then I - - when I got to art school, there was conceptual art and things that all seemed very different. And so -- I still sort of was seduced by making those decisions about color. So I thought, if I create a kind of grid system where I could make those decisions, but the decisions are always meaningless in the end result, then I could sort of paint endlessly, mechanically, like a kind of machine.

VERJEE: You only did the first five spot paintings, though, right? After that, you had assistants?

HIRST: Something like that, yes.

VERJEE: Can they still be considered Damien Hirst's if somebody else is doing it?

HIRST: Well, only in the same way that the Frank Gehry House can be described as a Frank Gehry house, you know?

VERJEE: Good point.

HIRST: I'm sure that Mrs. Prada doesn't make the jackets either, but, you know, we all call them Prada and we're happy to buy them. And, maybe, if you'd gone out and bought one that was actually made by Mrs. Prada, we might not like it as much.

VERJEE: Coming up, we find out about the massive gamble that paid off for the now very wealthy Damien Hirst.

HIRST: Quite an idiotic move, in a way. I was very lucky. I say "phew", rather than genius.


VERJEE: 2008 saw the world's economy spiral into freefall. Stock markets plummeted, jobless rates soared, and some of the world's biggest financial institutions buckled under the pressure. The International Monetary Fund labeled it the biggest financial crisis since the great depression.

But for Damien Hirst, 2008 was a year of good fortune. He took a massive risk and put these works up for auction. Not only going against traditional art selling methods by bypassing dealers, but also gambling on whether people would spend money on art at a time of financial uncertainty. And the move paid off. The two-day auction raked in $200 million.

Why did you decide to take such a risk? It must have been terrifying.

HIRST: Whenever I've not had an idea of what I want to do, I've always sort of done things that people say you can't do. Like people said you can't be an artist and a curator, you can't put on a warehouse show with all your friends' work, and, you know, you can't make an artwork over this size. When I've had people say you can't do that, I've always gone, "Watch me". And then done it. You know, so I think it -- you know, in the auction, it was the same thing.

There literally is no reason why you can't do it, but there's a whole structure set there that says you can't do it. You know, and then you do it. But I just think, for artists, it's great to have options. I mean, I don't think it's either-or. I don't think you give up what you're doing and then you do that, it just opens another avenue, another possibility. And, you know, lots of people say I was a genius and I was very clever when I did that, but I think actually it was luck.

You know, I mean, I kind of look at it and I think it's, you know -- another week later and it could have failed miserably. And it was sort of an idiotic move, in a way. I'm very lucky. I say "phew" rather than "genius".

VERJEE: You are the world's wealthiest living artist, but you grew up poor.

HIRST: I'd debate that, but, you know.

VERJEE: It seems to be the general consensus.

HIRST: Well, I think there are other artists out there with much lower overheads that might be richer.


HIRST: But, you know, pretty rich, I guess.

VERJEE: Yes, you're up there, definitely. Since you did grow up poor, though, how did not having money impact your life now, having plenty of money?

HIRST: I mean, I think I've had -- I mean, you know, I mean, that's not -- having money is a lot better than not having money, but, you know, I mean, I've always been very nervous about, you know, how to make sure that money's not my motivating factor. You know, it's like I've always tried to be in a situation where money is a byproduct of what I'm trying to do, which is make art. No matter how big the money gets, you always have to make sure that, you know, you're not using the art to chase the money. You're using the money to chase the art.

So, you know, like making a -- you know, and I think, from having no money, that enables me to make something like the pink diamond skull. Whereas, I suppose if you had money and you got money, you'd kind of want to keep it to yourself. And then you'd probably think more about making things that cost less, so you've got more money in the bank. Whereas, you know, I've always sort of been able to take all the money in the bank and put it on one sculpture.

VERJEE: Has fame and success given you friends you never knew you had, or wanted?

HIRST: I think fame's a tricky one. It's strange, because I've got kids. Because, it's like, you know, you have -- I mean, I always had -- I had a desire to make art before I had a desire to be famous. Whereas now, my kids -- I had my five-year-old come up to me and said, you know, "I want to be famous when I grow up." Because kids want to be like their parents.


HIRST: And then you, sort of -- I have to sort of say to him, well, you know, that's not a desire in its own right. It's, you know -- so you have to do something else and that makes you famous. So it's quite an unwieldy thing, I think.

VERJEE: 1995 saw you win the Turner Prize. What did the recognition mean to you?

HIRST: Well, I'd already -- I think the year before or the year before that, I'd lost the Turner Prize. I think not getting it was probably worse than getting it. And I'd kind of given up. But, you know, I don't -- I kind of didn't want to be -- I didn't want to get involved in it. I mean, I've never done very well in competitions. That was probably the first time I actually won anything.

VERJEE: Why didn't you want it?

HIRST: Because you don't, you know -- it's like any type of success. You want to measure it in -- you know, it doesn't really matter. It's like, you know -- because I'd lost it and dealt with it, I didn't then want to be nominated again. Because it didn't really matter whether you win it or lose it, because, you know, I'd already lost it and had to deal with it. But I think my art dealer said, "You'll sell more work if you get it this time" or something like that. So I thought, alright, I'll do it.

But the whole thing, you know, it's like, you know, it's -- you know, there are -- it's sad, really. Because the three losers. Before I was nominated, you know, it was one winner, but there was always three losers. And, you know, they're all my friends as well, so it's like -- you know, I'd experienced losing it and it wasn't very good.

VERJEE: What does your partner, Maia Norman, say when you say, "Honey, I've got this great idea -- so I'm going to get this disemboweled chicken, right..."?

HIRST: That sounds quite good.


HIRST: You know, I mean, I've done it -- you know, I've done things so many times before, but I think, you know, there's a -- you know, I mean, if you object -- I suppose she's used to it. You know, she's pretty crazy herself.

VERJEE: Does she just roll her eyeballs?

HIRST: Yes. Or just, you know. I mean, she knows that -- I'm just trying to think of an example, because disemboweled chickens were kind of a while ago. I haven't come up with ideas like that for a long time.

But, you know, I think the ideas are always kind of nuts, but then the reality becomes something, you know, seductive. So, like, you know -- my last sort of crazy idea I went to her with was I said I want to make a kind of seven-headed snake out of bronze that looks like it's a thousand years old and cover it in coral and put it, sort of, at the bottom of the sea, and photograph it. And she said, "Are you serious?"

You know, and, you know, I've done that. And I'm working on pieces like that. And, you know, when I show her the picture, she goes, "Oh wow, they're great." So, I think it's, you know, it's not always -- it's always unsurety followed by, you know, something exciting.

VERJEE: It's been fantastic to meet you, today, Damien. Enlightening. Thank you very much indeed.

HIRST: Thanks a lot.