An Interview with Damien Hirst

Stuart Morgan and Damien Hirst, 1995

‘This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home’ (1996). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Stuart Morgan  How did you react to the movie ‘Trainspotting’?

Damien Hirst  I wouldn’t have assumed that humour could be an effective way to show the horror of heroin, but it worked.

SM  Like the scene where someone disappears down a toilet.

DH  That reminded me of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, where a girl is in the bath and a hand comes up between her legs. The next thing you know she’s being pulled down under the water and there’s a bath-shaped hole way above her.

SM  But ‘Trainspotting’ is not just playing with effects.

DH  Not at all. The baby dies. The humour emphasises the horror, that’s what’s unexpected.

SM  Perhaps junkies are funny.

DH  But not in a slapstick way. If junkies were like the boys in ‘Trainspotting’, I’d be one.

SM  How does it relate to your work?

DH  My work is more optimistic than that. And I’ve never used heroin so I don’t know what it’s like. It seems much more negative than other drugs.

SM  You have your negative side.

DH  I like the idea of rich people buying my burned-out fag-ends.

SM  Is that a joke?

DH  On one level, yes. But smoking may do more harm than heroin, although they both end in death. Legal drugs are far more frightening than the illegal kind. If you’re not breaking the law, it’s harder to know where the boundaries are. Cigarettes are perfect until you light them.

SM  With the cigarette works you’re reminding people that they’re dying by increments. In fact, death is all the way through the work.

DH  The show is about Absolute Corruption.

SM  Absolute Corruption of life?

DH  The absolute corruption of life which is death. 

SM  When did you begin the spot paintings?

DH  About 1988 on the wall, about 1990 for the paintings.

SM  Do they continue?

DH  I keep stopping, then starting again. I want them to be an endless series, but I don’t want to make an endless series. I want to imply an endless series. Some are really small; one has half a spot and is half an inch by an inch.

SM  So the spots are always present as a background to the rest of the work?

DH  So far.

SM  And it doesn’t matter if they are big or small.

DH  No.

SM  Why?

DH  Imagine a world of spots. Every time I do a painting a square is cut out. They regenerate. They’re all connected.

SM  Why are you cutting out square? Is this a cipher for infinity?

DH  It’s an idea of painting and I’ve always wanted to paint but this is more sculpture than painting. I guess it’s infinity.

SM  And in front much smaller versions of infinity, like people dying.

DH  Like looking at it under a microscope. It’s the difference between art and life.

SM  Would you ever simply show the spot paintings and nothing else?

DH  I want to show the whole series, when it comes to an end.

SM  When will that be?

DH  When I get tired of them. It’s slowed down a lot and these tiny ones are verging on the ridiculous. I want them to be shown individually. Why not half a spot on a wall? The natural thing would be to put ten on a wall and make a relationship, but I don’t want that.

SM  And what would that do? Make me imagine the room isn’t there?

DH  In a way, they are about cutting. They’re too small.

SM  Is the idea that you’re working down very gradually?

DH  I don’t like the idea of doing them forever because it implies that there is no escape. I like the idea of working it out of my system before I die. I like to imagine that art is more theatrical than real. So an involvement forever is real whereas an implied “forever” is theatrical.

SM  So you want to be theatrical?

DH  Yes, I don’t need to do it forever for it to look like forever. If it was forever I could continually repaint the same painting. The spot paintings always surprise me. There’s so little there but it looks so vibrant on the wall. I’ve thought of painting a taxicab that way; it would stand out more than day-glo. The spot paintings are full of life.

SM  To me they look like a colour chart. What I like is that they move more than they should.

DH  If you have a box of dead snakes and you put a few live ones in, it looks as if they’re all moving.

SM  How do you feel about nature?

DH  I’ve seen better (laughs). There isn’t anything else.

SM  Do you feel that mass production is superior to hand-making?

DH  Mass production hides natural differences between things. There’s something comforting about mass production. I don’t think it’s real. I think it’s unnatural to hide natural differences.

SM  It’s a sort of memory.

DH  It’s comfortable to know you can always buy Coke. But tomorrow Coca-Cola as a company may collapse and you’ll see the cans in the museum as a weird thing.

SM  How did you plan the present show?

DH  I based it on the idea of corruption and tried to see that as positive.

SM  Corruption of flesh or moral?

DH  I’m trying to see them as the same or connected. You can say it’s corrupt to sell cigarettes because they corrupt the flesh. One piece is called ‘Loving in a World of Desire’. It’s about how love becomes problematic when faced with the corruption of the flesh and the idea of creating a world of desire that you meet in advertising – which makes things difficult.

SM  You talk about love a lot. Why?

DH  Because it seems so difficult to sustain. Love is realistic; desire is unrealistic. It’s easier to blindfold yourself, change your girlfriend every six months an don’t look in the mirror than to live with someone forever and see change. Although I’m tired of the word Love, it’s like “God.” Instead of saying “I love you,” I want to say, “I’m delighted you’re alive.”

SM  Don’t you believe in God, either?

DH  No.

SM  What became of your Catholicism?

DH  I was too young and I took it too literally. I remember being told that Eden was on earth, and I decided it must in the Amazon jungle because it hasn’t been totally explored yet. I thought it had to be a real place. I didn’t think you could find it in other people.

SM  Does this mean you don’t believe in states of being?

DH  There’s too much here already.

SM  What about dead people? Where are they?

DH  They are not. That’s the idea that makes me most comfortable. God is a way of trying to extend life. You can’t imagine God without some human form.

SM  So you have no religious belief at all?

DH  Probably not.

SM  What happens when you show cut up cows and sheep?

DH  It’s like creating emotions scientifically. What do you do if an animal is symmetrical? You cut it in half, and you can see what’s on the inside and outside simultaneously. It’s beautiful. The only problem is that it’s dead.

SM  Imagine a person completely opened.

DH  In a way, you understand more about living people by dealing with the dead people. It’s sad but you feel more.

SM  So if I’m bisected in formaldehyde, how do you expect me to react?

DH  Not at all, but a viewer should be intrigued. The work should attract you and repel you at the same time.

SM  Do you eat meat?

DH  Yes, but it’s easier today not to.

SM  Especially with the current “Mad Cow Disease.”

DH  In a hundred years, people might not be carnivorous. It’s barbaric. And cows are the most slaughtered animals ever.

SM  How do you feel about that?

DH  I see them as death objects. Walking food.

SM  But you’re not doing anything about it.

DH  I don’t think you can do anything. What’s sad is that if you look at my cows cut-up in formaldehyde, they have more personality than any cows walking about in fields. That’s another reason people get annoyed; it’s easy to walk into a butcher’s shop and see meat because meat is associated with life. But try to put that back together, back into a cow. It’s the banal animal that gives it the emotion. You wouldn’t feel the same about a tiger.

SM  Tell me about the circular paintings.

DH  They spin on the wall, because I was annoyed by people asking which way up they were meant to be. These paintings turn on the wall and that is how they’re made.

SM  How do they differ from other paintings?

DH  You can’t make a bad one. Why bother with all that angst? You can’t argue with it; you can only change scale. You still make artistic decisions... But a twelve foot diameter painting is awesome. They are twelve feet in diameter in order to become really childish.

SM  Childish or childlike?

DH  Childish, hopefully, in the positive sense of the word. To feel like a child, now, I need bigger toys to play with.

SM  Will you make more?

DH  I want to limit the series but yesterday I thought ovals might be interesting.

SM  Why does working in series attract you?

DH  There’s a kind of confidence about it. Natural History, the collective title for the group of animals in formaldehyde, will come to look like a zoo. A zoo of dead animals.

SM  Does that mean you deal with every zoo animal?

DH  No. That was imagined in one burst, and there have been only a couple of additions. One is called ‘Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything’: two cows cut into foot-long, vertical sections, all in individual tanks. That’s twelve pieces, and you can walk between each one. It has a head at both ends and eight legs.

SM  What are the inherent lies you are talking about?

DH  That you have to kill things in order to look at them.

SM  So they’re your lies, not everyone’s...

DH  Not yet.

SM  What was ‘Pharmacy’ (1992) about?

DH  Confidence that drugs will cure everything. It’s like readymade. Put one on the wall and it looks confident. I went to the chemist’s and thought, “I wish I could make art like that,” then realised I could have it as it was.

SM  One theme of our conversation is time and different ways of measuring or suspending it. Does that go back to Mr. Barnes?[1]

DH  Yes and no. When I read your essay, I realised that there was so much, then four weeks later it was all gone. Lucien Freud said, ‘I think you started with the final act.” I’m still not certain what he meant, he could have meant with the fly pieces. From seeing the interior of Mr. Barnes’s house, and so early, I thought there was no way of recreating it unless you spent sixty years doing it. To see that, then to realise how easy it was for it to turn back into an empty shell was a daunting experience. I was going to try to recreate it in Pittsburgh, but didn’t have the guts. Another problem is that you wouldn’t want anyone to see it. It’s something I’m still thinking about.

SM  Mr. Barnes assumed that nobody would come near.

DH  Or assumed it was a museum that everyone would see eventually. I don’t know.

SM  Did you use any of his work?

DH  In the collages. I became Mr. Barnes, taking his stuff then collecting my own stuff and adding to it, then at the end swept it into a pile in the middle of the floor and made first the boxes on the wall, then the spot paintings.

SM  The boxes looked like a rash.

DH  For me, curating an exhibition was a little like what Mr. Barnes was doing. Since then, every time I put something on a desk, I see it proliferate like those boxes. I can’t get the thought out of my head. It makes me horrified by materialism.

SM  You are careful about how many works to make.

DH  Behind you is your history, a trail which is impossible to avoid. Then there are infinite possibilities ahead. So the question of series becomes problematic. It could make pets in formaldehyde for the rest of my life, but I won’t.

SM  The passage of time must have altered the meaning of your work in other ways.

DH  I do get a lot of criticism from Animal Rights activists. In the beginning I made no money. Now the fact that I do must be taken into consideration. When I first presented animals, people felt something. Now they say, “That’s Damien Hirst.” One reason to stop I guess, but, on the other hand, I want to reach the end of the series as I imagined it in the beginning.

SM  What else do you want to do?

DH  I want people to be frightened. That gets harder. Frightened of themselves.

SM  Your new billboard work is scary.

DH  Yes. It’s forty feet long by ten feet high, and turns, with three images: a hammer and a peach, a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber, and a text, ‘The Problems with Relationships’. It goes on forever.

SM  The hero of your current movie ‘Hanging Around’ goes from one problematic relationship to another, eternally.

DH  I wondered what would happen if a person existed who whenever he left a situation every trace of it disappeared. Obviously, the people he meets have to die. But in every situation a workroom existed: an isolated space like Mr. Barnes’s.

SM  It was hard to know whether he was dead or alive.

DH  It’s hard to tell a story and at the same time learn a new visual language. But that’s the challenge: it’s made of bits. A film is like a collage.

SM  “Sculpting in time,” Tarkovsky called it. And the next film?

DH  The working title is ‘God Games’. It’s set in the future. If you have money, you get a servant or a maid. If you have no money, you get cloned. So poor people all have twins. One man tries to escape from himself. Organs from clones are being sold illegally, so of course, clones are being murdered. And the first person who doesn’t want to meet his twin causes major problems within the company.

SM  Where is ‘God Games’ taking you?

DH  I won’t be able to return to making art, the way I used to. I’m interested in the way that learning about film will affect the work, but I was watching T.V. and listening to pop music before I ever went into an art gallery.

SM  Do you feel divorced from nature?

DH  I wish I was. I like it when the outside comes inside. I like sunlight on flowers. I like ashtrays.

SM  Ashtrays take on a new presence in your work.

DH  An ashtray eight feet in diameter, filled with normal-sized butts, called ‘Party Time’, but it will smell like the bad side of a party. And I’ve got a pig cut in half, which slices. One half moves like a bacon slicer: slowly, tragically. It’s called ‘This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home’.

SM  The idea of motion is new.

DH  You’re forgetting the floating ping-pong ball in 1991-1992, ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere with Everyone One to One Always Forever Now.’

SM  Does the title relate to the work?

DH  Yes. It’s about desire.

SM  The new show is about repetition, animals...

DH  There will be plenty of activity. The moving billboard relates to the cows. The image itself is cut vertically like the cows. The billboard puts itself back together, and as the billboard moves it makes a noise. It’s a solid image you can look at and through; simultaneously. It dissolves. Then there is the floating beachball, called ‘Loving in a World of Desire.

SM  The show is called ‘No Sense of Absolute Corruption. What does that mean to you?

DH  Life.

SM  Are we discussing physical or moral corruption?

DH  Both. All the sculptures contain both senses of corruption. The spin paintings have two negatives which equals a positive. So the idea of machines making paintings could be corrupt. Corruption is also physical. Advertising is corruption, so there is the big billboard sculpture. Everything is rotting, even sculptures. And the idea of hoarding, selling artwork is corrupt, but I’ve still got ‘No Sense of Absolute Corruption’.

SM  How do you relate to popular music and the current trouble-making attitude of bands like Blur, Oasis, or Pulp?

DH  They’re my age. Like me, they’re from the North of England: Oasis from Manchester, Jarvis Cocker from Sheffield. Blur were at Goldsmiths College and played for a party at our degree show...

SM  And you’re all naughty.

DH  Not naughty enough.

SM  But do you believe in pleasure?

DH  Everything I do is a celebration, at the very least it’s a celebration. 

[1] “It began with the man next door. During a two-year interval between school and art college, Damien Hirst struck up a nodding acquaintanceship with an elderly man called Mr Barnes, who could be seen wandering about the neighbourhood during the daytime and returning home every evening with objects he had collected. Then one day there was no sign of him. Time passed, but when he still failed to appear, Hirst and his friends climbed over the fence to see what had happened. They never managed to find out. Barnes himself had gone for good, but he had left an astonishing legacy: rooms packed from floor to ceiling with objects he had amassed, at some points leaving only narrow pathways through which to move. His outings had served as preliminaries to a baffling taxonomic process which should be guessed at rather than analysed, the extent of it’s self-reference never fully perceptible...”

“Damien Hirst: The Butterfly Effect” in Stuart Morgan, ‘What the Butler Saw’, ed. Ian Hunt, London, 1995, 247-253. 

'An Interview with Damien Hirst' was originally published in Damien Hirst, 'No Sense of Absolute Corruption' (Gagosian Gallery, 1996). Copyright © Damien Hirst/Estate of Stuart Morgan, 1996.

Stuart Morgan — A Biography

Stuart Morgan (1948-2002) was, during the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most influential art critics working. His writing -- much of it published in Artscribe, Artforum and frieze -- was appreciated by artists and readers for its wit, insight and willingness to question assumptions. He made a lasting impact on the culture of contemporary art in Britain, and his writings and interviews have been collected in two books, What the Butler Saw (1996) and Inclinations (2006), both published by frieze.