Thanks to a brief profile in Wired last month, I’ve been mesmerised by the ‘hyperphotos’ of French photographic artist Jean-Francois Rauzier. It is definitely worth spending some time exploring his worlds. And they are worlds – each image is deceptively simple but like all great art, draws you in with a summons to contemplate and wonder. Read more
I was given My Name Is Charles Saatchi & I Am An Artoholoic for Christmas and have only just got round to it. Not a heavy read by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Saatchi admits at one point to having comics as his most regular reading. This is essentially a compilation of scores of questions from different people on a wide range of subjects.
It is as revealing as one can reasonably expect from one of the most creative advertising geniuses of the 20th Century – i.e. I suspect not so much. He’s sharp, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, occasionally insightful and quite fun. His obsessions for the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are well-documented, and they are a regular topic of conversation. As are some of the highly influential exhibitions around the world that he has instigated.
This is the sort of book to have on the go in the loo (if you like that sort of thing) or to read in an hour or two.
I was struck, though, by the rare occasions when he revealed (albeit rather flippantly) his worldview perspective. He is an Iraqi-born Jew whose family fled to London in 1947, so no doubt has quite a few stories to tell. But these all-too-brief remarks are quite suggestive…
Does a love of art, particularly Renaissance art on a biblical theme, make one feel closer to God?
I believe God must be very disappointed in his handiwork. Mankind has clearly failed to evolve much in all these years; we’re still as cretinous and barbaric as we were many centuries ago, and poor God must spend all day shaking his head at our vileness and general ineptitude. Or perhaps, we might just give him a good laugh. But of course, I hope God likes our art enough to forgive us our sins, particularly mine. (p14)
Then even more briefly…
What do you buy apart from Art?
I have a shocking Frappucino habit, so what doesn’t go on art goes to Starbucks.
What is the one thing you now really wish you could buy?
My way into Heaven. (p112)
One wonders whether or not he might have had much to talk about with another, wealthy influencer of public opinion from a former age…
I’ve talked about brands before, on occasion. Logos and branding are an integral part of everyday life. Unavoidable in fact. And with logos and brands, have come icons.
It’s a funny word, ‘icon’. Of course, the word has an ancient heritage – derived from the Greek εἰκών (eikõn), it originally meant an ‘image’. Hence in Colossians 1:15, Christ is the eikõn of the invisible God. He makes the invisible visible. It’s not hard to see, therefore, how Eastern Orthodox iconography evolved. Of course, this is not what the word connotes for an average 21st Century person. To some it means a person whose image somehow encapsulates an era or subculture, a heroic or celebrated figure like Mandela or Clint Eastwood or Marilyn Monroe. It’s even the name given to the cringingly trendy rapper in the “Rev.” second episode. But to perhaps the majority today, an icon is simply a few pixels on a computer screen which you click to open folders or software.
Round the corner from where we live is a rather unassuming, but clearly stylish, shop. It’s got a bland, but perhaps knowing, name – Other Criteria. And it’s part of the Damien Hirst empire. He’s certainly no slouch when it comes to making money (correction – a LOT of money) from his creativity. And he knows what he’s doing. Is he saying with the shop title, ‘don’t judge me by the old criteria as used by art critics (who are often pretty dismissive)’?
I often walk past the shop several times a day, and it’s got me musing. Because, as so often, Hirst seems to be playing with us. Look at the 4 icons in the window’s centre. The first, yellow one, is a riff on medical tablets – evoking his 1992 Pharmacy installation. But the weird thing is that when I first walked past it, I misread it – i thought it was saying Christ, as if in a modern update of some Roman catacomb graffito. Crazy? Well not when you see what’s next to it: logo forms of the communion chalice, the cross and the fire of Pentecost perhaps? Hirst has taken Christian themes before (e.g. with his skulls entitled For the Love of God).
So what’s he playing at here? Is it just a joke? An appropriation and commercialisation of still recognisable symbols? Making a serious point? None or all of the above?!
I can’t make up my mind. Any thoughts…?
Damien Hirst has done it again – art hitting the headlines – and achieving what he seems to love most – the limelight. You have to hand to him i suppose. This time he’s unveiled a £50 million work, with £12m-worth of diamonds encrusted into a human skull he bought at a junk shop. Hirst called it For the Love of God and said of it:
“it is uplifting, takes your breath away. It works much better than I imagined. I was slightly worried that we’d end up with an Ali G ring… You just want it to be flawless, like a diamond is a flawless. We wanted to put them everywhere. They go underneath, inside the nose. Anywhere you can put diamonds, we’ve put diamonds… I wouldn’t mind if it happened to my skull after my death.”
The artist said that he was inspired by an Aztec turquoise skull at the British Museum, and hopes that his work will eventually be displayed at the institution.
What’s more, the White Cube gallery at which he’s exhibiting in north London is selling limited edition prints that he has made of the skull, of which this is one. There are 5 images he’s made, and they have surprising names:
- For the Love of God, Pray
- For the Love of God, Believe
- For the Love of God, Shine
- For the Love of God, Laugh
- For the Love of God, The Diamond Skull
Quite intriguing, really. A human skull is the classic symbol for mortality in art par excellence. Of course, the title is not exactly an expression of piety, more a clichéd cry of desperation – which is perhaps appropriate in the face of our mortality. Hence the first two titles of the prints – PRAY and BELIEVE. Our post-atheist age is crying out for the divine and more-than-material world. Mortality has always been the thorn in the flesh of a truly atheistic worldview because we all have within us a deep-rooted yearning for something else beyond.
Near the end of his life, the great existentialist-atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre told Pierre Victor – “I do not feel that I am a product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” Protested fellow philosopher and long-time companion, Simone de Beauvoir: “How should one explain the senile act of a turncoat?”
And yet some time before this point, Sartre had said: “That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget.”
This is not to say that Hirst has come to this position – the 3rd and 4th prints suggest that he is taking up a more resigned approach – in the face of mortality, all you can do is SHINE in the present, and LAUGH as you face the future. It is a ‘let’s make the best of a bad job’ approach to life. As one of my favourite summaries of our postmodern world puts it: it is NIHILISM WITH A SMILE. And what better symbol could one want for this than a skull – surely it is the fact that a skull appears to smile which is their most unnerving characteristic.
But mortality is still one of Hirst’s obsessions. After all, we all remember the infamous Tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, made in 1991 and famously bought by Charles Saatchi
But do we remember it’s title: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living? And of course he is right. The shark looks real and alive in its suspended animation. But it is not – it just just an illusion. Death is somehow completely unphysical – we can’t get our heads around it. And more than that – mortality is clearly something that worries Hirst – and he wants us to be worried by it as well. And rightly so. His works of art are profoundly troubling. I’m completely guessing here – but i wonder if he chose diamonds as some sort of glittering preservative in response to what happened with the shark. For the formaldehyde is ok but not brilliant – the tiger shark has recently been rotting and deteriorating. At least diamonds, being the hardest known substance, don’t rot. And they sure do look better than formaldehyde. No wonder Hirst would prefer to have his skull covered in £50m worth of diamonds than a tub of formaldehyde.
There is of course still a flaw. When Hamlet realises that the skull he has in his hand is that of his old friend Yorick, the Court Jester, he rages at the grim realities of death:
Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? (Hamlet, V.i)
For a skull is a skull – dead and unable to respond. Whether it is covered in diamonds or not.
Hirst’s name will live on – but he won’t. Nor will any of us. However much we cover the fact up. We don’t like that much. Woody Allen was interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph in 2002. The article noted:
We’re all born astride the grave but surely he has a form of immortality through his films. ‘Yes but as I have said before, it would be nice to live on in the hearts and minds of my audience, but I’d rather live on in my apartment.’
I couldn’t agree more. Except for the fact that the grave is not the end – and there is an answer to life beyond – which does not lie in art galleries, but on a cross…