Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine (Issue #10), September 2009. The interview took place in February of 2009.
One of the very best things that can happen to a thinking person is to have his assumptions flipped. When I met Damien Hirst on Bali’s Brawa Beach, where he was finishing an intense three-month painting session, I expected him to have a bumper sticker on his lap t op that said, “Suck my cock vomit.” Which he did. But I didn’t expect him to be extraordinarily down-to-earth, generous, and aware of his own position in a way that is caring rather than cynical.
This interview is the first he’s given since deciding here in Bali to stop all his production pieces in order to focus on making his own paintings. In the process, it touches on everything from the suicide of his close friend to the essence of painting to five-foot wooden gi raffes—with a detour on the nature of visual language using Vaseline and a cucumber.
Alexander Boldizar: So you’ve stopped your production?
Damien Hirst: Yeah, I’ve stopped it all.
AB: Everything? Or just certain lines?
DH: Just stopping it. I’ve stopped everything. Last year was last year, so it’s over now, but I’m finishing off a few bits and pieces. I’ve got one big formaldehyde piece to do, which I’ve been working on for like six years or something. I’ve got three titles for it. It’ s crucified cows in massive tanks, and the title will be either I Blame the Parents, or Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story, or Time Heals All Wounds. I haven’t decided yet. It weighs seventy tons, and I keep having problems with it. When I filled it with formaldehyde, it smashed all the marble, because it’s so heavy.
AB: And that’s the last one? The last production piece?
DH: Well, that’s the only one that I’ve go t to finish, yeah. I was going to finish everything off, but I’ve just decided since I’ve been here in Bali that I’m just not. I’m just going to shut everything down when I get back. I’m just going to stop everything where I am rather than finish it. I was going to carry on doing spots, but no. The only production thing I haven’t stopped is the paintings I do from photographs.
AB: Spots are done?
DH: Yeah, I’m just going to quit it now . I’m letting go of everything. I’ve had it. I’ve done millions of everything.
AB: This is a huge change.
DH: The auction was what ended it for me. It ’s all about money, power, success. I used to love the idea of money ‘cause it was like an element in the composition. Money’s a big important thing in life so I’ve taken it on in the art, but in the end it’s not something you can do permanently.
AB: The art market itself was a sort of canvas you were playing with.
DH: Yeah, I like that. Warhol made that okay, didn’t he. I’ve always loved Warhol for going in there and dealing with all those things.
AB: And now you’re giving up that conductor role, and taking a seat?
DH: I just think that at the end of the day there is no option. I feel like I’ve done a lot of things which have opened it up, which I’m very pleased with. I definitely created an option for other artists to go to auction, which you just didn’t go. But if I keep on doing all that I’m just going to end up fucking everything up completely. I love art so you can make all these things, but I couldn’t have gone into the auction unless I had an idea that I was going to be ending all that stuff. Because it’s kind of an end, it’s the end of something, it’s not like you can carry on with it. It’s almost like you’ve been flirting or courting with the devil or something. Not even the devil, but definitely with the darkest forces within the art world. Or whatever. But I want art to survive, I want it to survive in any environment. People say they don’t care about money, and it’s very easy to not care about money without confronting it, but if you confront it, it gets fucking tricky and dangerous. And value, what is value, what’s everything worth? What’s art worth?
AB: But you’re still maintaining that producer role through Other Criteria.
DH: Other Criteria is a totally different thing. That’s affordable art on a different level. I want people to get value for money. I was starting to think crazy things. I was starting to think, “I wonder if it’s possible to sell an artwork for a billion dollars?” You know. It’s just crazy shit. It can only work in a boom before a recession. Mad shit goes on.
AB: There’s something very brave—
DH: Or stupid!
AB: Once you’ve gone that far down the path, to be able to step back and say okay, I’ve done it, I’m at the end, people don’t usually recognize that point. Especially with such success.
DH: The thing about success is how do you measure it? I’ve always wanted to be excellent, and there are many ways to be excellent, but on whose fucking terms do you want to be excellent? In other people’s or your own? You have to be excellent in your own terms. Which is the most difficult thing. That’s where something like the paintings comes in. I made the spot paintings. I’ve been making them for twenty years, and they meant something to me. And then slowly they mean less and less. And all the great artists and the artists that I admire, when something lost interest for them they stop it. And if that’s in a situation where you’re making loads of money and you’ve got lots of encouragement and everyone telling you you’re great, it’s very difficult, but you just have to do it.
AB: So has your focus shifted in terms of what fulfills you as an artist?
DH: And as a human being as well. You just get older. I look back at all that work I was making and say this is the work of a younger man. I always think that art is the map of a person’s life, and that’s the greatest thing about it, that you can make these U-turns and ninety degree bends and they’re horrifying in the moment but in retrospect you’re following some sort of path of truth in a way. It’d be horrible to get to the end of your life and still be doing spots and think fuck and not be even able to admit that you should have stopped them thirty, forty years ago.
AB: Grey spots.
DH: Grey spots. Yeah. I’ve done that. I just felt that with all the works I was doing that it wasn’t going to take me to the end of my life. It’s like, I started off I was celebrating, and I felt like I wasn’t celebrating anymore in that way. I stood on the table going yee-haw for twenty years, and then suddenly I wasn’t standing on the table anymore I was sitting at the side and everybody else was going yee-haw and I thought, “How many more spot paintings can you fucking make?”
AB: Now you’re painting. Yourself. How long have you been doing that?
DH: Two years, two and a half. Since 2006.
AB: And how long have you been spending three months a year working in a tropical climate?
DH: It’s actually only the third year I’ve painted.
AB: So all those other years in Mexico?
DH: I just hung out, got slattered. I think I was still drinking then.
AB: It’s only in the last three years you’ve been painting?
DH: Yeah. I had a year where I worked up to the idea. I knew I was going to start doing these paintings for about three or four years. I was thinking about it, and putting it off, and then when I started I had a year of horrible paintings, or a year and a half. I stopped painting when I was sixteen or something and then went into all the sculptural things. I’d thought I’d learned something in the interim, in the period since when I stopped, but I hadn’t. I picked up the brush and they were just crap paintings.
AB: For my own curiosity, have you given any interviews focusing on the paintings?
DH: No, but I’m sure I will when I stop all the other stuff. There’ll be nothing left to talk about. When I start repeating myself that’s when I stop doing interviews. I did talk with Richard Prince about the new paintings, because I have the show in Kiev. It’s coming out in my new book, when it comes out.
AB: Looking at the paintings, the first impression is one of shock by the brutality of them. We’re so used to the controlled surfaces, the slickness, the control, the production quality, etc. You look at these paintings and they’re really brutal. And then you study them and several things begin to come through. The obsessive use of color and psychological things that keep showing themselves. Some are new, like the empty chairs in a way, the windows, but some are actually reworkings of existing themes done in a new way, in paint. So I actually see dots there, spots you call them, and I see the white lines as the grids that used to hold the sharks.
DH: Yeah, I think that’s what the spots are, but you know, I don’t know. I think it has to do with getting old. It’s a drastic change, but once you look at it, it’s not.
AB: It expands the psychological parameters.
DH: I’ve always wanted to be a painter, but all my forays into painting were sculptural, really.
AB: There’s a quote from you saying that “I just wanted to find out where the boundaries were. I’ve found out there aren’t any. I wanted to be stopped but no one will stop me.” With these paintings, have you stopped yourself?
DH: Paintings are darker, really, in a way. Sculpture’s a very strange thing, isn’t it? It’s much less personal, you’re much less in your own head, you’re much closer to everyone else in the world with sculpture, and people bump into it, whereas in painting there’s a kind of an illusion and a disappearance, which is like your own disappearance. There’s a fear and a darkness which is much stranger.
AB: Do you know the Coleridge poem, The Raven, who “belonged, they say, to the witch Melancholy?” You have black birds in all the paintings. They are dark, and they are melancholic.
DH: I had a dream years ago as a kid, when I was making my last paintings, of a crow being shot. It was just really like a bad omen, a feeling that something bad was going to happen. All the paintings in the show— I had a friend who committed suicide last year called Angus, and he’s somehow wriggled throughout everything. He hung himself last year. I went bear hunting in Russia, which is a fucking nightmare. I didn’t kill anything. But I sat in the forest, it sucked, for fifteen hours in the forest with a massive Russian guy next to me. They send you off in different parts of the forest, so I’m sitting in the forest with a guy who didn’t speak any English, Russian, he’s holding the gun, and I just sat there, no bears came for about fifteen hours, you can’t piss, if you want to unzip you have to go like that [mimes quiet unzipping], because the bears hear everything. And I sat in the forest and it went from daylight to dark, from the day through the night, it rained a little bit, and then came back on again. What happened with my friend Angus, who hung himself, is he went in the woods in Scotland and he tried to do it one night, couldn’t do it, slept rough that night, and then the whole of the next day he sort of wandered around, and then did it the next day. So he’d had that whole experience of being in the forest and the first day I was there I started thinking about him and I didn’t like it. I tried to stop myself. And the next day when I was in the forest I thought about him constantly. It had nothing to do with the bear—just thinking about what he must have been like in that kind of environment, ‘cause it was the same environment, and I realized that I’d never thought about it, never dealt with it myself. Because when someone commits suicide it’s horrible. It’s like you blame yourself and you try and avoid it and you don’t want to think about it. In the paintings there are a lot of figures in woods and a darkness, or the idea of darkness inside a person. It’s hard to understand. He’s somebody who pulled himself apart when we’re all trying to hold ourselves together. We’re all trying to hold it together. He made the rope. He made the rope himself. Fucking artists. It’s definitely like an artwork.
AB: All the Prussian blue. What does a color mean? What’s your affinity to it?
DH: There’s a few early Bacons from ’53, where he made a series, right at the beginning he did a little group of dark paintings. They’re my favourite Bacon paintings, but the Prussian blue works. You know, black’s dead, whereas the Prussian blue works like black for me, it has space inside it. It’s like black with depth, because black doesn’t have any depth.
AB: The eternity of death?
DH: Yeah. I just did a painting called Turn Away from Me here in Bali—the guy with the figure with the a hand with the skin gone. And that’s like, if you just start dwelling on how bad things are or can be in the world, you go down a road. That’s a figure who’s pulled himself apart and is saying don’t go any further down this road, because this is where it starts to get dark, and it can get a fuck of a lot darker. I intend to do paintings beyond him on that road as well. I suppose in a painting you can do that, but in life it’s got dire consequences.
AB: You want to say more about Bacon?
DH: Coming to Bali I’ve just tried to introduce figures. I’ve wanted to get through the figure thing cause that’s the Bacon thing. I’ve got to get over that, so I think through coming to Bali I’ve managed to get over that.
AB: The Medusa figure?
DH: Yeah, the mythology of that, of the Medusa figure. Because Bacon didn’t use those sorts of things, he was much more personal or in the street or from newspapers or magazines, but I think that takes it somewhere else.
AB: Besides Bacon, seeing the work while knowing about your three-month trips to Mexico makes me think of Remedios Varro and Leonora Carrington. Both made work in Mexico.
DH: I always get wrapped up in semantics. Everyone always says your work is about death, and I always think it’s about life, and it’s like, is it? Who the fuck knows. There’s a darkness, isn’t there? I enjoy looking at it. Some people like horror films. I like horror films. Some people hate it.
AB: So you think Mexico had any influence on your work?
DH: It’s difficult, isn’t it – do you want to go to Mexico?
AB: Yeah, let’s go to Mexico. You talked about the crucified shark.
AB: When you quit drinking and drugging and stuff, a lot of people thought that you had turned to God. That was the chatter.
DH: I was brought up a Catholic until I was twelve, so I was indoctrinated. I’ve still got all that shit in there, and you can’t really undo it when you’re a child.
AB: So that wasn’t environment? That wasn’t Mexico coming through?
DH: Is it Mexico, or did I go to Mexico because of it? I love the fucked-up Catholic brutality that they’ve got over there, all the blood, the Mayan stuff. It’s like Catholicism with blood. And I love the way they deal with death and walk hand in hand with it and all that. But you know, I don’t know if I went to Mexico because of that or if it comes out because of Mexico. But I definitely feel at home there.
AB: You didn’t go to Mexico because Maia wanted to go surfing?
DH: Mexico’s the only place we found where I was happy to be where she could surf. I’m not allowed to go anywhere unless there’s surf.
AB: Is that how you ended up in Bali?
DH: Yeah. That’s how I ended up in Devon too. There’s surf in Devon. Maia says, “We’re not living anywhere unless I can surf.” I’m a surf widow.
AB: Obligatory corny question—has working here [in Bali] affected you?
DH: In a way it’s very similar to Mexico. It’s got a lot of things I like about it that I didn’t expect to like about it, like I didn’t realize it was so fucked up, which I quite like. But that’s the same thing as Mexico, you know what I mean? I like collisions, I like the collisions of all that stuff.
AB: Yeah, places without collisions like Singapore—
DH: Or like America
AB: New York now—
DH: Yeah, but they’re lying, pretending there is no collision.
AB: But Bali has it and Mexico has it.
DH: Mexico, you feel like you could be fucking killed, which is a bit different. There’s a lot of violence, whereas here it’s not violence, it’s just cultural fucking collisions.
AB: Are you feeding on it?
DH: I don’t believe in God, and though the Gods they have here are as ridiculous as anywhere else, at least here they’re beautiful. To look at. And guys get to walk around with petals in their hair and they’re not gay!
AB: I’m still curious about the question of environment. Whether mangoes are going to start showing up in your work.
DH: With the paintings I quite like the idea of coming somewhere. When I arrive it’s always a nightmare, a lot of blank canvases and you just think, “Jesus Christ I can’t do this.” But I quite like that. I’m really sort of disturbed by that, but I want to be uncomfortable to paint. I don’t want to be comfortable. When you go to your own studio it’s like making a cave for yourself. The paintings are always more successful if you’re kind of brutally pushed somewhere. Starting with a white room you can get some great results. You know, like the Bacon studio, where you’ve got all that clutter, it looks great, but it’s like a cave of comfort where he climbs into and paints. It’s much more terrifying if you’ve just got a white room and white canvases and you’ve got to cover it with shit. I always like the idea of the action of the world on things.
AB: When you are facing that white room—
DH: A good idea in a painting for me, it’s layers, it’s the best of many layers. Everything I try first is shit, but then you go back, turn it around. When you’ve got twenty layers of these different things, it grows into something else in some way. That’s where the best paintings come out of.
AB: John Currin made a comment once to Ashley Bickerton about Jeff Koons, saying something like, “If Jeff would just fucking make one mark, one painting, I just want to see his mark, no matter how bad it is, I just want to see the mark.” And Ashley’s answer was “Those hundreds of assistants, the seven thirty-inch Macs lined up in a row with turbocharged CPUs, a million lights shining on it, a million-grid sandpaper to make it absolutely perfect, with Jeff hovering over the thing like a bat on amphetamines, that is his mark.” And John wasn’t convinced, he really wanted to see his mark.
DH: You get that all the time. I think it’s bollocks. It’s John’s fear. Thinking about it with my work, the shark in formaldehyde, it’s 100% successful, but when you’re making art you’re always risking things. There’s a hell of a lot of chance involved with an artwork, it’s like a great pool shot. But you can get that with a sculpture, you can get that with your hands on, you can get that with your hands off, it doesn’t really matter.
AB: So you think the distinction is—
DH: I just don’t think it’s relevant. Painting’s about fucking hiding everything anyway. I would never show you my mark, even in a fucking painting. When I said I started painting for a year and it was a nightmare, that was when I was totally exposed. And they were just fucking awful. The only time paintings get good is when the person doing them starts getting in the shadows and dancing back and not showing you his weaknesses and all that sort of stuff. That’s what’s exciting about painting, there’s no fucking weakness.
AB: I want to throw a quote back at you: “Painting is so poetic, while sculpture is more logical and scientific and makes you worry about gravity.”
DH: What’s pretty about painting is the illusion. I’ve always loved paintings ‘cause you look at them like that [head on] and then you turn them like that [edge on] and they’re gone. It’s like a line. You just switch it and it’s a line. Life is fucking important and so art can never be that important, because art’s holding a mirror up to life. You can’t live and die in a painting and you can’t live and die in a sculpture. Art is definitely lesser than life, so it has to have some sort of illusion built into it. The illusion’s built into the beginning. If children are fucking starving to death, you don’t want to look at fucking paintings. That’s what I mean. The art comes in, it’s important, but it comes in after, it’s not fundamentally important. When the guns come out no one’s got the paintings on the wall. I just love the fact that in painting you deal with the illusion straight away. There’s no fucking depth in a painting. If you’re looking for truth, why would you start to create depth in a space where there isn’t any? It’s just a lie. Unless at some point you put paintings on the wall and people go, “Wow, I never knew you had a window there.” Did that ever happen? Did you ever paint a landscape because you were in a dark room and people thought you had a window?
AB: I want to ask you about irony.
AB: I read a quote—
DH: Did you see that thing in the Simpsons where he was ironing, and he goes, “The irony is so sweet.” He’s ironing.
AB: I may have my answer there, but I’m going to ask anyway. In the context of finding different things fulfilling as you age. David Hickey at one point said that your work couldn’t survive the collapse of the presumption of irony. That if you took the irony out, the work would collapse.
DH: I don’t fucking agree with that at all. That’s bullshit. Where my studio is there’s always people walking past. When the pubs close people go to school, and I always say to myself, “Okay, if I put this studio out on the street, and if it would still be there the next morning, then it’s shit.” It’s that fucking simple. If somebody would walk past it on the street and take it home, then it’s a fucking good piece of artwork. There’s no irony in that. If it looks good it is good. Or if it just catches your eye, even for just a moment—like the fucking butterfly wings, how can you argue with that?
AB: Actually, I think he was talking about the butterfly paintings.
DH: Butterflies are going to be beautiful forever. Butterflies are made for sex, aren’t they. You know the flash of a butterfly’s wing on a clear day can attract another butterfly twenty miles away. It’s all done with grids. Lots of grids that fit together and totally refract the light. Tiny, tiny grids, that’s what makes that iridescent blue. Twenty miles.
AB: There was a tipping point where those Keith Harings were done on the subway. They were there and they were there and they kept on being there, and then suddenly people got it and they got that they were worth something, and then they all disappeared. And every time one went up, it got cut down. So there is a tipping point where something isn’t of value and then it becomes of value. There’s a consensus too, so it isn’t just whether something’s qualitatively good.
DH: I think you just look for universal triggers. When you make any kind of artwork, it’s going to go in storage for a lot of its life, no matter what it is. But you just try to make something that can defend itself when you’re dead. Something that can stay out of storage. Something that people would want to put on the wall. I was saying to Ashley the other day that all art students get canvas and oil paint and they paint and paint and paint, and there’s so much shit in the world and you think it’s a useless thing to try and do, and then you get Goya and the same process will create Satan Devouring His Children, with the same ingredients. Or William Blake will do Ghost of a Flea. Just fucking amazing paintings that come from nowhere in the middle of all this. A great reaction to any art that I’ve always wanted is “Wow.” People walk into a room and see something you’ve made and just go “Wow.” I don’t fucking want anything else. Who gives a shit about what other people think? If people go, “What the fuck is that?” and you go, “Do you like it?” and they go, “I don’t know, wow, what is it?” That’s great. There’s a visual language that exists, and it’s the same visual language they use in advertising. I love the idea of a visual language.
AB: Speaking of visual language, you want to say more about the iconography in your paintings? You explained much of it with Angus Fairhurst. The empty chairs, is that people missing?
DH: The empty chair was about my friend Joe Strummer as well. Angus died and then Joe died. The empty chair was about both of them. Just the way that things are taken away. All the empty chairs are about missing people, aren’t they? People who aren’t there. What I like in anything is universal triggers. When you’re in a supermarket, just talking about how a visual language works, and if you put a cucumber and a jar of Vaseline in someone’s shopping trolley, and they get to the checkout, you follow them to the checkout, and do they go, “These are not mine?” Or do they just ignore it, which is just as bad, and then they come home and say, “Who put that in my trolley?” But you can’t help that. You get a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber, and you can’t say, “I’m having a salad tonight and my lips are sore.” No one’s going to fucking believe you. But that’s what’s brilliant, as an artist that’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking for that major connection between two fucking objects, any connection like that, that’s the great thing about being an artist, that’s how objects work.
AB: I guess that answers irony.
DH: “It’s not what you think. These aren’t mine.” I swear when I was in Mexico, it was a Friday night, I saw a guy getting some Imodium and Viagra. That was all he was buying in front of me. In the super market. That’s like a proper night out, isn’t it. That’s a full-on weekender.
AB: Besides the icons, chairs, the crows, the psychological triggers and markers that define territory and space mentally, there’s no real narrative in these paintings, is there? In the sense of leading in a linear way?
DH: Have you seen the one with the Vaseline and the cucumber?
AB: Is that actually in a painting?
DH: It will be. Definitely will be. Definitely. I’m going to fucking paint that immediately.
AB: Your titles have always been poetic in this crossed-objects way. Do you see poetry the way you see painting? Does it have to be illusory?
DH: I guess they’re lyrical, aren’t they. I like to say something and deny it at the same time. The best thing to do is to make a viewer responsible for their interpretation without them realizing it. If somebody came up to me and said, “Are you saying that black is white?” I would say, “Yeah.” And if someone else came up to me and said, “White is black?” I’d say, “Absolutely.” As long as they weren’t both there at the same time. The only thing I look at is the triggers. If you’ve got five or six triggers that work in a particular way, in a poetic way, or in a lyrical way, then you kind of go, “That connects to that to that to that.” So you get this story, and you go, “Oh, and you also get that story.” So then you can see that they’re all in the right positions to create these stories, and you go, “Great, good to go.” And then if somebody puts it together in another fashion that you’d not really thought about and they ask, “Did you know you were putting that in there?” you go, “Yeah, of course I did.” Because I was putting them all in there, but I don’t need to see them all because it’s about putting the triggers in the right places. So that you know that they will create those stories. I have a sculpture called Nothing Is a Problem for Me. I love that title. Does it say I don’t have any problems? Or does it say nothingness is a problem?
AB: Kafka has a way of writing, these sentence structures, where he’d say, “This pen is blue, or it’s aqua. Or it’s actually not a pen at all.” And your titles kind of remind me of that sideways-shifting logic.
DH: Yeah, that’s great. There’s a great quote written above the door of the Victorian Albert Museum by John Ruskin. It says, “The excellence of every art is measured in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.” Or something like that. That to me is what art is all about. You play around with objects and they’re clumsy and awkward and they’re horrible and suddenly you get them together into a state which is just beautiful and they can’t move, and that happens with titles, words, images, any kind of composition. And like you said that Kafka statement that maybe it’s not a pen at all, it gives and takes away and spatially just does something that is magical and leaves you with something and nothing at the same time. And as an artist you’re just looking for things that you can recognize like that.
AB: Is Blake a big influence?
DH: Not really. That one painting, but nothing else. I like Soutine, Goya, DeKooning, all the great sort of messy painters. Bacon.
AB: Sol Lewitt in his sentences on conceptual art said, first sentence, that “Conceptual artists are mystics.” Are you a mystic?
DH: Yeah, for sure. My favourite artwork of all time is the neon by Nauman saying, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” And the neon goes spiral into he center, and it was brilliant. You could have just done it in a straight line, and everyone would have gone, “Oh, yeah, I get it.” But you put it in a spiral and you can hardly read it so you find yourself going like that [cranes neck]. Which is just fucking brilliant.
AB: Are you into Whirling Dervishes?
DH: I’ve never been to bed with one, but I’ve woken up with a few.
AB: Does Maia surf right outside?
DH: Yeah. The architecture here is horrible, but the location is fantastic.
AB: That’s a lot of places in Bali.
DH: People build shit, it’s just the way the world is. There are many many people in the world who buy all that shit in Ubud. Who the fuck are they? Where do they come from? But that’s why art is expensive, because of that shit. Because everybody loves that shit. I’m going to go get myself a fucking five-foot wooden giraffe. But only if the guy promises me he won’t make any more.
AB: Any Indonesian or Asian generally artists that you like?
DH: Murakami. He got called a Chinese artist the other day. Who was it, someone in Gagosian called him a Chinese artist. Oh, Gunawan. Ashley recently showed me a Gunawan that I really liked. I’ve only seen the one painting but I loved it. And I like the bird that carries the woman, the Garuda. Fucking love Garuda. I prefer Garuda to elephant head. Ganesha.
AB: You managed that auction on the day Lehman collapsed.
DH: Yeah, that was a weird, chancy thing, that. Bizarre.
AB: You’re known for having an uncanny sense of timing. Your nickname used to be Satan.
DH: When I was a kid I did once say to my brother in the graveyard that I’ve sold my soul to the devil to become a successful artist.
AB: You did? How old were you?
DH: Did I, fuck. No, not really.
DH: You can put it in though. Say I was… No, better not.
AB: Two things you’re admired for is pure balls-out nerve, and uncanny timing.
DH: Instinct is a great thing, isn’t it? We all use it. I always make better decisions on instinct. If it feels right then it is right. Like timing, you just feel that.
AB: Other people don’t have what you have.
DH: They do have it, they just don’t base decisions on it. I got involved in the art world, got some sort of success, and then people tried to say to me, “Right, okay, now you don’t do anything. There’s a chair next to Richard Serra and Jeff Koons with Damien Hirst written on it. Sit in this chair and shut the fuck up now. You’ve made it.” And I looked at it and said, “I’m fucking thirty-five or something.” I was thirty-five at the time, and I just go, “It’s fucking impossible, because that can’t be the map of my whole fucking life.” If I sit in that chair I’m absolutely fucked, it’s over. So I just refused to sit in that chair. But then you have to make your own entertainment in some way. If I’d sat in that chair, I’d never do these new paintings. So many people said to me, “Don’t rock the boat.” But rocking the boat is what creates great art. In the beginning, loads of my friends became successful before I did. And I used to go to openings and people would sort of ignore me and say I was a curator ‘cause I’d organized Freeze, and they weren’t interested in my work. And I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to fucking show you cunts. I’m going to make you eat your words.” And then when I got to a position where I was successful, I remember some woman turned to me and said, “Marvellous darling. I always knew you’d be successful.” Shit happens.
AB: After the big sale, you were walking down the street in London and all the bowler-hatted-type guys were looking at you and congratulating you.
DH: Absolutely. Money talks. That’s what’s fucking amazing. You’re an oddity. People would never buy a Damien Hirst before the auction, but then— Like a lot of wives of businessmen would buy my work and the businessman would be like, “What the fuck you buying that for?” And then, suddenly they see you make $200 million and they’re like, “What the fuck is that?” And it really disturbs their world, and I love that. Definitely, walking down the street I get businessmen nodding to me, which I never had before.
AB: This idea that money talks—how do you feel about that?
DH: I sold a piece for a million pounds, and that was frightening. And after that I didn’t give a shit. When I started I was like I don’t care about money. I was telling the galleries just sell it for what you want, or it should be more, should be more. I was looking at my other mates, and a friend was selling for a hundred thousand when I was selling for twenty, so I told my guy, “Put my fucking prices up to a hundred and fifty. My work’s better than hers.” Doing things like that, which was a bit mental. But I didn’t care. But then when I sold for a million, I was like, “Are you sure it’s worth that?” And I got the fear.
AB: Why does that work for some artists but not others? Why can some tell the gallery to raise the price and get away with it, while others say, “I’m big I’m hot,” and they get their balls chewed off?
DH: I don’t know. You have to look at what’s available in the gallery and how much it is. Sadly, there are people who go into a gallery and go, “I want to buy some serious art,” and then you go, “I’ve got a Richard Phillips,” and they go, “How much is it?” and you say, “200,000,” and they say, “I said some fucking serious art,” and you go, “I’ve got a Jeff Koons, it’s $6 million,” and they go, “I’ll take it.” Because they want to buy serious art. They’re not looking at the art, they’re looking at the fucking money. But the good thing is the more they pay for it, the less chance they’re going to throw it away. That’s what I always think. We love art, that’s the main factor in the end. Art is the most powerful currency in the world, more powerful than money. At the end of the day, it’s a challenge to try to deal with that. I love the fact that before this recession loads of people were buying my work, buying and selling, and now it’s worth less than they bought it for. All the people ask, “Well, don’t you feel bad about that?” and I go, “Fuck off, it means they’re going to sit and look at it, and that’s what it’s all about.” That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? That’s what it’s made for, and they bought it. When times are tough, it’s a lot easier to make good art. In a boom it’s really difficult. Now that things are screwing up, it’s going to be a lot easier. It’s a sad thing, as well, though. I hate that sort of van Gogh thing, the starving artist, that’s one thing that kind of drives me. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, and you see all these people making money off artists and you think it’s a fucking shambles, and I’ve always been offended by that. You kind of need to confront that in some way.
AB: Wow. Thank you.
DH: You’re welcome.
This interview took place in February of 2009 and first appeared in the September 2009 issue of C-Arts Magazine (Issue #10). The 14-page article in C-Arts includes many more paintings, in 250MB resolution, which is about 10,000 higher than these websized versions. You can buy the whole issue from the C-Arts site.
I am especially grateful to Ashley Bickerton for making this interview possible.