Unbelievable part 6: Controversy and ethics

13 December 2019

Controversy and ethics concerning work attached to Damien Hirst are areas that raise more questions than I can answer, which is one of the draws for me. As I think about these issues, controversy has blown up in the art world around something as simple as a banana taped to a wall. Hirst is no stranger to the found object, or at least taking the concept to another level. Earlier this year when I was writer in residence for Yorkshire Sculpture International I had the chance to see older works by Hirst for the first time. One was Black Sheep with Golden Horns (2009) using the real body of a sheep preserved in formaldehyde. While stayed, the work is ultimately ephemeral, just decomposing at a much slower rate than a fresh banana with no preservatives.i They both raise issues broadly concerning the food industry and livestock or produce as commodities, asking audiences to confront them and question what can be art and possess value as a commercial art object. Not everyone sees it that way, though.

Black Sheep with Golden Horns (Damien Hirst, 2009) installed in Leeds Art Gallery, 2019

In April 2017 just before Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable opened, I read about animal rights activists’ protests outside the exhibition venues. I mentioned this to my friend Jennifer Thorburn who was teaching in Venice for a semester. When we arranged my visit to see her, I could not pass up the opportunity to finally attend a Hirst show and judge it for myself. If anything, I thought this could be the only time in my life when I could be in the presence of objects of such excessive monetary value. There was also the idea that coral had been pulled from the ocean, which didn’t sit right with me, but I felt open-minded because I wasn’t convinced this had really been the case. The protests demonstrated continuing anger at Hirst for his use of preserved and dissected animal carcases, but provided an apt reminder that they weren’t just agricultural livestock and included a tiger shark in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a species sometimes found in the Indian Ocean, unlike the great white which featured amongst the Treasures works.

At least there is honesty in putting animals on display. The food, clothing and upholstering industries block consumers from awareness of where exactly products come from or how they are made and moved around the globe. Bones are removed, flesh reshaped, skin peeled off, tanned, dyed and worked into different textures, yet, for some, displaying an unmutilated dead animal is the pinnacle of immorality. During my Venice trip, I also visited the Museo di Storia Naturale and saw more stuffed and displayed former living creatures than I could keep track of. Oh, and a mummy. What is the difference between showing these once-living bodies for the sake of natural science and history and the display of a full shark in an art gallery? It is still an object of study that raises ethical problems. Our forebears should not get an easy ride just because times were different and there were no animals rights in that not-so-foreign country of the past. After all, we would not have the advances in human medicine or pathology we have today without a little Burke & Hare action. We ought to be honest about where things come from and how they are obtained to enable viewers to actively confront instead of passively turning a blind eye.

When it comes to human remains, Hirst’s skull pieces particularly attracted conflicting responses and debate due to what many see as problematic ethics and excessive materiality with no use-value. For example, For the Love of God (2007) is a diamond-encrusted platinum-cast adult human skull that laughs in the face of death while, as the most expensive art object ever made at the time, it provides food for thought on art economics. There was outcry that For Heaven’s Sake (2008) contains a long-dead infant’s skull. It was found during an archaeological dig and would otherwise remain locked in a vault. This anonymous baby, likely from a severely underprivileged family that could not give it a proper burial, was invisible in life and death, but for more than a decade has experienced life anew as one of the world’s most monetarily valuable art objects and its existence is witnessed and marked. Whether through viewing it as art or feeling offended on behalf of what bereaved parents are assumed to feel, this infant’s life – the fact of it having lived and died – has been acknowledged world-wide. Attention was drawn to the fact of infant mortality with focus on the poor. People talked about the unspeakable and were invited to discussions on the privilege of wealth – issues that are not exclusive to one another.

Conversely, it is commonly accepted that grave-robbed mummies pilfered from their resting places are exposed and displayed whole in museums – often in countries far from the site of burial – without a thought that visitors are encroaching upon their eternal rest. These preserved ambassadors of the ancient world had material wealth in life and death. They were not meant to be gazed upon again in this world, but rather live on in histories and legends while remaining entombed. Their display may be educational, but seldom, it seems, is their acquisition by colonial pillaging perpetrated by the ‘civilized’ world considered by museum visitors. A once-powerful pharaoh or queen is merely a withered object to be stared at, indiscernible from all the others displayed in museums worldwide, whereas that anonymous infant human was made into something precious and rare and given a unique identity. Like them or not, Hirst’s lavish exhibitions afford privilege, glamour and wealth to the anonymous, and make the invisible not only visible, but spectacular.

In addition to its remixes of ancient myths and the challenge to the notion of art collecting, the Treasures exhibition accomplished the spectacular on a grand scale. But Hirst has never been beyond questions around copyright. I wonder about the economics and ethics of reproducing, for example, Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Balloo. Were they purchased, or permission given? Does fair use apply? Hirst is no stranger to infringements and has the finances to bat them off. In Leeds this year I also saw his 20ft anatomical sculpture Hymn (1999–2005) and read that back in 2000, Hirst settled out of court when he was sued for copyright infringement by the designer and maker of the Young Scientist Anatomy Set that inspired it. This ability to ‘get away with it’ is surely something that irks reviewers and commentators, and likely their readers. The danger of this annoyance is risking not seeing the broader issues in the round.

What posed challenges for dealers and collectors about Treasures was not being able to buy pieces in isolation while sets of works were too large to store or display. Highly desirable pieces were not purchasable for practical reasons, making a mockery of the whole enterprise. As an art-lover who cannot afford to buy art, these obstacles for those who can afford to make me chuckle because they render rich dealers and collectors as unable to ‘possess a Damien Hirst’ as me. Reviewers such as Jacqui Davies for Sight & Sound feel that this cannot be regarded as satire because it lacks criticism. Earlier in Hirst’s career, he played the art market and won big. Now he toys with it in other but still disruptive ways. Like the banana issue, perhaps the criticism is in the idea rather than the act or object.

Davies also points out in her review the misogyny that can be drawn from the marketing images for Jaws (1975) in which the viewer is privy to a young nude woman being stalked by the shark and the potent imagery of violent penetration this evokes all re-performed in Andromeda and the Sea Monster. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Minotaur graphically depicted the bull-man cross in the throes of pinning down and raping a woman. The titles give no indication of untoward actions while in viewing the works visitors were confronted with violence towards women – specifically young, conventionally attractive women society reckons are ‘asking for it’. The double-edged sword is that while it is important to show certain realities, the images might be read as titillating. But show the realities (albeit through fantasy) they do. Moreover, so do all of the naked female figures in the show in their rare and realistic inclusion of labia. The vulvae on the figures are a further indication of the exhibition’s lies that the works are over 2000 years old, as this part of female anatomy was already being smoothed over in ancient Greek art. Their presence is an act of truth-telling, just as is the literal rape in Minotaur as opposed to the victim-blaming implied or impending rapes that are sanitised in much classical and ancient art.

Instead of being quick to take offence, we ought to look closely at and consider the detail. The art market is characterised by obscene amounts of money raised by seemingly arbitrary or undeserving objects. Why shouldn’t a banana be worth US$120,000? If we count up its food miles, the human labour involved in its existence and journey across the world, its centuries-long selective breeding for human consumption, and not just its cheap purchase from a supermarket, perhaps it is worth that, or even more. The point is, it invites consideration of those issues, just as Hirst’s elaborate Treasures show invited consideration of a great many issues society ought to confront. In reading his work rather than dismissing it, there is much to learn about unravelling systems of control and propaganda.

iThere’s a fascinating documentary about the art market, The Price of Everything (dir. Nathaniel Kahn, 2018) in which collector Stefan Eldis who owns one of the sheep series describes it having to be renewed as the bodies degrade over time, raising similar questions as Maurizio Cattelan’s banana does about the idea being the art rather than the object, as Amy Bryzgel goes into in the linked article.


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