A Conversation

Irvine Welsh, 2004

‘Crematorium’ (1996). Photographed by Stephen White © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012.

Recognized as one of the leading artists of our time, a newly reformed Damien Hirst meets his literary counterpart, Irvine Welsh, to chat about high art, getting high, and the dizzying heights of success.

Despite us being bracketed together as big carousing buddies by numerous newspapers, I’d never actually met Damien Hirst. We’ve managed to acquire a lot of common acquaintances, even some mutual friends over the last few years. Bizarrely, we’ve even been mistaken for each other on occasion: each having had to account for the other’s conduct. So it was probably time that we actually met.

A good time as it happens; both Damien and I have cleaned up our acts in recent years meaning that a head-to-head would be semicoherent and that an intermediary wasn’t essential. Blackbook provided journalist Craig McLean – just in case – who helped put things on track when we rambled, but basically left us to get on with it.

My knowledge of the art world is far from comprehensive, but I know that Damien Hirst’s ascendancy within it has been seen as meteoric. While still a student at Goldsmiths College he curated the widely acclaimed ‘Freeze’ exhibition, which brought his work into contact with art dealer Charles Saatchi. After graduating he presented ‘In and Out of Love(1991), an installation for which he filled a gallery with hundreds of live tropical butterflies, some spawned from monochrome canvases on the wall. With ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991), his infamous tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde shown at the Saatchi Gallery, Damien Hirst became a media icon and a household name. He has since been imitated, parodied, reproached, and exalted by the media and public alike. Having won the Turner Prize in 1995, and having redefined how we see dead farmyard animals, he has become the contemporary artist most referenced by the media, and the standard bearer of Brit Art.

While revered, Hirst has inevitably had his critics. Irritating crusty right-wingers and gathering shock headlines from the tabloids may not be any artist’s raison d’etre, but it’s an amusing diversion and definitely does one no harm. Probably more important are the criticisms that come from within the art world. The Stuckist Movement, which exists to advance the cause of painting as “the most vital artistic means of addressing contemporary issues,” claims that his work is boring and unremarkable. Substantially though, their criticisms amount to more of a critique of modern conceptual art in general rather than of Damien Hirst himself:  “In the nineteenth century, the art establishment was sure of its greatness.  Critics, artists, collectors, and curators agreed that the standards they proclaimed were of great art and would endure. They were wrong. The current art establishment is likewise sure of its greatness. They are also wrong.”

How long the tears will flow for the so-called masterpieces of British modern art destroyed in May in Charles Saatchi’s East London warehouse fire is debatable. However, only time will tell whether conceptual art is a fad, or whether it’s painting, as a medium, that now cannot adequately portray the complexity of modern life.

I meet Damien Hirst at his West End offices, named Science. His bar is called Pharmacy – there’s always been something of the mad scientist about his public persona. In the flesh though, he is relaxed, warm, and grounded, still speaking in a not-overdone Leeds working-class accent.

It was an opportune time to meet in more ways than one. The previous day I had just heard about the fire in Saatchi’s East London warehouse. It seemed as a good a place to start as any, once we’d cleared up a few mistaken identity details.

Irvine Welsh  We’ve never actually met before, but we’ve always been attributed as hanging out together.

Damien Hirst  Once, in a bar, I ended up starting a fight with somebody, and as we broke it off, they went, ‘Fuck off Irvine.” I’d just shaved my head and I think they thought I was you, so I got you a very bad reputation. There was probably one night when you were starting a fight simultaneously up north and in London.  Or maybe they thought I was Eddie Irvine [an Irish racing driver]. There was that great quote in the paper when he was being linked with Claudia Schiffer, and somebody went up to him and said, “Is it true that you’re having an affair with Claudia Schiffer?’ and he went, “I wouldn’t touch that fat cunt with a barge pole.” 

IW  [laughing] That’s fucking fantastic. I don’t know enough about the contemporary art world to make judgements about it, but I was interested in that fire and what’s been written about it.

DH  We thought maybe [Charles] Saatchi had done it. He buys in bulk, right across the board. You get sick of it – have a clean out.

IW  When I write a book, the manuscript is actually worthless once it’s gone into the process, but in your case you have an artifact, and the artifact can be destroyed. How does that feel?

DH  Well, with technology today things can be remade, so there’s a dilemma as to what is the most important thing – what the artist was trying to communicate at the time, or the actual object itself? I’ve lost about 17 paintings now, the spin paintings, and I can make another spin painting, but it would never be the same as the ones I’ve lost.

IW  But would you want to remake them, or would you think, “Oh, I’ve fucking left that behind, there’s no interest there.”

DH  I think if it’s a fire, you have to say, “Well, they’re gone.” Because that’s what fire does. And you could end up spending your whole life trying to make your old stuff.

IW  The only thing I can compare it to is sometimes I have been banging away, you know, and get into this transcendental stage where you’re usually doing your best stuff, and let’s just say that you’re tired, and you make mistakes, and you don’t back up your discs, and you hit the fucking wrong key and you’ve just lost a few chapters, and you think, I can’t fucking take this, and I’ve taken the computer and thrown it across the room. I’ve just sat down and cried, or I’ve even tried to retype it as quickly as possible, but even if you replicate it better, you never actually believe that you have. You feel that it’s outside that moment, and it’s never going to be the same. You just feel a little bit of the magic has gone.

DH  The worst thing is if I lose titles, because you can be hammered out of your mind and you just fucking forget the title of something you’ve been trying to work out for a year, and the next day you just can’t remember it – you’re fucked.

IW  Usually, with books, the title comes first with me.

DH  Same with me. I’ve got titles that I’m working on that I haven’t even got the sculpture for. I’ve got one called ‘devoured by a desire to walk in front of you with a duvet until you die.’ But that just came as a title. Fuck knows what it will look like, but something to do with having kids.

But in a way it’s quite reassuring that things can die, do you know what I mean? Somewhere between the unique objects and the mass-produced objects, between the Coke can and the ‘Mona Lisa’, it’s nice to live in a world where you do have both those options all the time. But sometimes you need to take them away to appreciate them, unfortunately.

BB  Would you want someone to read an early draft of one of your novels, or someone to see an early version of one of your sculptures?

DH  No, someone once came into my studio when I had builders and diggers and fucking machines, and they said, “You must love all this,” and I said, “I fucking hate it,” and they said: “What’s your favorite bit?” and I said, “When it’s all fucked off and there’s just the artwork”. People think you must really love all the process.

IW  With books, you just want to type “The End” and send it off to the editor; you just want to get to that point. There’s a creative side that you actually enjoy, but then after that, it’s just a fucking slog to get the thing looking reasonably OK, you know.

I was interested in one of the things you said one time – that you want people to react to art the way they react to medicine.

DH  Well, I think art gets boring pretty fast, and to give it relevance today is pretty difficult; you’ve got to catch people out visually. So I think you’re always looking for that, and I thought that pills were a brilliant little form, better than any minimalist artist.  They’re all designed to make you buy them.

IW  This is the thing, there’s a design concept for everything, whereas before it was just really functional.

DH  I mean pills do come out of flowers, plants, things from the ground, and it makes you feel good, you know, to just have a pill to feel beauty.

BB  That’s why when E’s came out people took such care to design them, putting Mitsubishi logos and stuff on them.

DH  Brilliant.

IW  Yeah, they were great. You just fucking couldn’t beat them. I’ve stopped taking them now, but I aim to actually start again in a couple of years time.

DH  Yeah, I’ve thought about it actually; I’ve got loads of mates and they’re still doing the charlie [coke], and you just go, “You’re fucking mad, it’s better to have the E’s; at least you have a laugh – you’re fucking miserable on charlie.”

IW  I used to enjoy the hangovers and come-downs to write, that was always a good time for me, but what I’ve found just over the last five years is that’s changed a lot. I used to feel this nastiness and strangeness, and I used to really want to attack that feeling, and fight through it, almost, on the keyboard, but now I just want to lie in bed and feel sorry for myself. That’s the only reason I’ve stopped.

DH  I think it’s a young man’s game; it’s really attractive on youngsters, but when you get older you just look like a miserable cunt.

IW  I’ve taken up long-distance running and boxing and all this kind of stuff, so I’m getting the buzz from endorphins now, you know. It’s partly the old fucking vain stupid reason, like going out with a younger bird, but I think the other reason is that I really do get the endorphin buzz through exercise.

DH  How old are you?

IW  Forty-five. And I’ve taken up boxing as well – coldly going into a boxing ring and getting hit is a weird, weird thing but you realize that it’s not actually that painful; it’s more of an annoyance than pain. You realize that your mentality changes, and you see it for what it is. It’s an exploratory thing for me, and it’s as interesting doing this now as taking drugs was 10, 20 years ago.

DH  I think creatively, for any great writers or artists, your whole work is a map of a man’s life and it goes through that young to old to slowing down process, and it’s interesting all the way through, and it’s very easy to pretend you’re young and deny it, as a lot of people do. I think it’s much better to get beaten up in a boxing ring than to take E.

IW  I want something new to come along that’s going to blow me away the same way that ecstasy did.

BB  Mushrooms, that’s the big thing now.

DH  I can’t eat them now, either.

IW  I can’t take acid now – that’s really a young man’s drug. I think as soon as you become aware of your mortality in your late 20s, you just leave that fucking stuff alone, it’s too much of a tax on the brain, but mushrooms, because you’re not up there for eight hours, but an hour or two at the most, I can just about do.  I haven’t for a while, but if the opportunity arose and it was a nice hot day….

DH  I stopped drinking when Joe [Strummer] died; he was a really good mate, so we hung out a lot. But he was a fucking nightmare because I was trying to stop drinking for about a year, and Joe was just, fucking, “Have a drink,” and I couldn’t deal with it, so I always accepted drinks off Joe. So when he died I was just about to have a drink and I thought, “No, fuck it, I won’t.” And then after that, you look around and the quality of the drinkers had really gone down, and the babble and the fucking shit going on, and once you see that you just think, ‘Fuck off.”

IW  I used to love getting fucked up and maybe going into this coma and not even sleeping, just going through to the next day, that was always a great time.

DH  Yeah, me too, I used to love that. Once you get to ten the next morning….

IW  …you’re back in business. 

DH  Fucking nightmare, on the phone trying to get more gear [drugs].

IW  But that’s the time now that I just listen to all this fucking shite, and think, “I’m not vibing on this.”

DH  You go from being the worst to total intolerance.

IW  You do, it’s the convert syndrome.

DH  The best thing for me was having kids, and wanting to be in the same state they’re in in the morning, but by the time you get used to it, they’ll be out on fucking drugs and, you know – I suppose I’ll start again when they’re 18.

IW  I always drank heavily, it’s been a cultural thing, but I think a lot of what sustained it for me has been doing the writing, because you’ll be sitting there, typing away, about these people that don’t exist – it’s a psycho thing to do, really – and when you finish that you just want to go out and celebrate, you want to get fucked for days and months, and you don’t want to go back to it again, so you’ll do anything not to go back to it.

DH  I definitely had two years in London where I fucking enjoyed and loved every day, and then I probably had a year when I wasn’t sure, and then another two years when I didn’t even admit I wasn’t enjoying it. But for two years we were celebrating every day.

IW  It’s difficult to get to that point of admitting to yourself when it stops becoming a validation of life, and starts becoming an escape, or a way of avoiding getting on with something else. I think you do have to tear the arse out of it and make a complete cunt of yourself before you get to that point.

I watched this thing on Channel 5, this ultimate reality TV documentary thing, Bumfight.

DH  Oh yeah, my brother told me about it yesterday, he said it was fucking evil.  How can you show it on TV?

IW  I just wondered what you thought about this whole reality TV thing. I was over in the States and they were telling me that the reality TV bubble has burst, but coming back here it’s obviously as strong as ever.

DH  In a way it’s like real life. It exhausts you and you need to go out and see a movie to get it all out of your head. All that Jackass stuff, though, I fucking love all that.

BB  Has Pop Idol had a positive impact on pop culture? 

IW  I don’t know, I’m of two minds about it. Music is a commodity, so why not accept that and produce your pop stars that way and get rid of them that way.  There’s always going to be a place for disposable pop stars because that’s what kids want, basically. It’s probably as good a way as any of selecting them.

DH  I think the big thing that fucks it up is that no matter how good the talent is, it all happens so fucking fast in the media, you get this big bubble and then they begin to believe this bullshit and start to rely on it, and then it gets taken away and you’re fucked.

IW  I think there’s something about having a reason to celebrate. People now support big soccer clubs like Manchester United so they can celebrate something, basically, and you think to yourself, “What are they actually doing to merit this celebration?” and I think this is part of the culture as well – that everything is an event to celebrate. I’m about to sign a contract to do a book, so I’ve got a reason to celebrate, but this is a culture that just wants to fucking celebrate for its own sake.

DH  The worst thing is that people come to your studio when you’re working on stuff, and go, “That’s brilliant, that’s fucking brilliant,” just to get their hand in, and you know it’s shit, so you end up in this situation where the only person you can trust is yourself.

IW  I can’t read book critics, for example, it doesn’t matter whether it’s praise or condemnation. You’ve got your own shit going on in your head, and to actually engage in somebody else’s views…

DH  As Andy Warhol said, ‘you don’t read your reviews, you weigh them.’ I look at sales [rather than reviews]. At least sales admits its own cynicism. I’ve got some shit reviews recently, and people say, “You must be really upset about that,” and I don’t actually give a fuck. 

IW  I think success does isolate you from that. If somebody is making a shitload of cash they’re not really going to bother about bad reviews, but for somebody starting out with their first book or first exhibition a review is everything.

DH  I’ve always tried to ignore the money and focus on the art. You get massive responsibility with money, and that’s something I found very difficult, and then you get scared of the money. Twenty grand, I didn’t care; 100 grand, I didn’t care. But when it started going higher than that, suddenly all your mates have changed, and you got mates who aren’t your mates. I remember going out for dinner with my mum and a couple of guys, and I was so pissed [drunk] that my dinner went all over the floor in a posh restaurant, and my mum went, “I could pay my gas bill with that money.” I went, “I’ll pay your gas bill,” and she went, “Don’t fucking try and buy me.” I’ve always believed that art’s more powerful and important than money, but it gets fucking close sometimes, and you just have to stay open to the fact that if you decide money’s more important you have to stop doing it.

IW  Money isn’t really a reason to do anything; it’s a reason not to do things, but it’s never a reason to do something.

DH  People always say to me, “God you could just sign dog shit and sell it,” and you go, “Yeah, I could, buy why the fuck would I?”

IW  There’s that debate now about whether painting is dead or not, or whether modern life, modern society, is so complex, so dynamic that you can’t actually capture it on canvas.

DH  I think art’s more popular now than it ever was. I don’t think I created that, but I definitely cashed in on it. Art is probably the most valuable currency in the world, and painting is the best level of art. I always say that if you leave a painting out on the street, and it’s still there in the morning, it’s shit. There are art stores you can go in, and if it was all in a dumpster, you wouldn’t nick [steal] anything. I do think painting’s been mother-fucked by photography and images and stuff like that, but now that images have been airbrushed, people have gone back to painting. It’s the only kind of imagery that makes any attempt at honesty. 

Afterword: Irvine Welsh

Later on in the pub, Craig, a former deputy editor of the Face, reminds me of the time when the magazine asked several celebrities to draw something on a Post-it note and send it back to them. I quickly scrawled a penis and pair of bollocks. So, too, did Damien Hirst. The difference was that somebody in the Face wanted to hold on to Damien’s offerings – resulting in a letter from his lawyers – while mine, like the rest, probably ended up in the bucket. It must be a strange pressure to have your idle doodlings cast as an original work of art with a value. 

Damien doesn’t seem like a man under pressure, though, or if he is, he’s managed to cultivate a good line in nonchalant grace. I enjoyed meeting him; I know this because I now find it hard to use his surname. Whether he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest artists of all time, or simply as part of a diversionary footnote called modern conceptual art, is something I haven’t got the breadth of knowledge to speculate on. But I do get a hunch – with him at any rate – it’ll be the former rather than the latter. Despite a relaxed and engaging manner, he maintains that driven bearing of someone whose best work is ahead of him. I harbour the suspicion that he’s not even started yet.

'A Conversation' originally published in Black Book 2004. Copyright © Irvine Welsh/Damien Hirst/Craig McLean.