Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 14 News List

Damien Hirst beats Jeff Koons, hands down

His £50 million skull is not the only gem in Damien Hirst's shows, but Jeff Koons, an early influence, is less than sparkling these days

By Laura Cumming  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

There are tickets, there are bouncers, there are cordons and bag checks and then you are in lock-down with the famous skull for five minutes. The experience is somewhere between nightclub, Bond Street jeweler and security vault: anthropologically, nothing like an art exhibit.

And not so much art as the last gasp of decadence, the brightest bling ever made from an open-mouthed skull. In the pitch dark, it shines like starlight, while looking curiously knitted: 8,601 diamonds in twinkly moss stitch. Damien Hirst hopes the head will triumph over death, and maybe it is in some way sacred to the artist, like that jeweled skull of the Aztec god in the British Museum from which it so precisely derives. Certainly, it stifles visual analysis as anything except a staggering sight. But as a comment on the raging debate about art and money, For the Love of God is pretty much priceless: which other work of art so effectively narrows the gap between material value and aesthetic worth (£15 million for the diamonds, £50 million for the object) by being 30 percent pure gleaming wealth?

Hirst’s true brilliance was in his first flush — the shark, the flies, the paschal lamb in its afterlife of silver bubbles: perfect as visual allegories. They were catnip for critics searching for contemporary art with any kind of meaning and the shark was custom-made for the biggest of art sharks. When he opened a restaurant, spotted wallpaper and butchered cows were his wares. Butterflies trapped in bright paint were for collectors still interested in beauty. Now that Hirst sells to hedge-fund managers, he has his shrewd eye, as ever, on the clientele: the skull is such a commodity, so easily traded and worth way more than its own weight in brand-name, platinum and diamonds.

Hirst has long since defied Blake’s assertion that art cannot be carried on where any view of money exists. This vast exhibition is split between two shops. There is nothing to frighten the cautious investor and you can buy the same commodities in both. Hoxton, in London, being smaller, has only half a dozen of Hirst’s cancer paintings: blood-red panels in which razor blades, shards of glass, hair and assorted crucifixes and St Christophers are glued to images of malignant cells beneath the microscope. Mason’s Yard has more, and bigger, plus a solid silver figure dangling his own flayed skin: Gray’s Anatomy plus Gunther von Hagens. But since he cannot martyr real people, Hirst uses real animals instead — pierced with arrows, crucified or flayed and beautiful in their way as Soutine’s painted carcasses. Though what they add to the hardly deficient tradition of religious art isn’t clear and not in any degree spiritual. Life and death, in Hirst’s art, happen to the body, not the soul.

The message of these works is as blunt and incontrovertible as ever. We bleed, we suffer, we die; art is money, money is power; they want to confront you with the most literal and obvious facts. Disease has its vile beauty, dung-flies glitter too; you can’t argue with that. But the aesthetic is getting so upscale as to interfere with the one-two impact. The shards of glass, for instance, ought to make you wince — Hirst used to be so good at poking the mind’s eye — and not look merely pretty. But there are some works here that falter in visual terms and are strangely the better for it.

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