Creation, destruction, sensation: Damien Hirst’s burning desire to destroy art worth £10m

Take two cultural phenomena, both designed to confound us, which are now each worth lots of money: the art of Damien Hirst and the equally infamous non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. Between them they have already perplexed many art fans. This month brings them both together in a dramatic event to be staged during Frieze London, a moment when the international art world turns its fickle attention to the capital.

And, as if the combination of this notorious British artist and the mystifying digital art market were not explosive enough, an actual bonfire is promised. Hirst is to set light to artworks from his first NFT collection worth £10m. For his critics, the expensive stunt will mark the low water mark in a career built on headlines and brass neck. For admirers, it is a chance to look back at the impact of a master.

Hirst’s conflagration is due to start on Tuesday 11 October in front of a virtual audience and invited guests at his Newport Street Gallery. The burning routine will continue daily at specified times until his exhibition, The Currency, closes at the end of the month.

The artworks themselves, a series of 10,000 images that feature his trademark coloured dots, were launched by the digital arts service Heni last year, with each one represented by a virtual token, or NFT, worth £2,000. Collectors had the chance to keep either the token or the physical artwork and, by this summer, 5,149 had chosen the tangible object, while 4,851 opted for the NFT. It is these 4,851 original images that are now to be destroyed.

Creation, destruction, sensation: Damien Hirst’s burning desire to destroy art worth £10m

Damien Hirst’s sculpture, Death Denied. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

For Laura Cumming, the author and Observer art critic, this ostensibly provocative act is entirely in keeping with the artist’s practice. “Damien Hirst made the market his medium and his message long ago,” she said this weekend. “His latest stunt is absolutely self-contained in those terms.

“He was always brilliant at titles and this one is like the concentrated crack-cocaine of epigrams. It is called The Currency and that is what it is about, and what it is for – art as money, and the making of money with art. And that, in turn, goes right to the heart of Frieze week.”

Hirst’s early fireworks display will be far from the first artistic dalliance with the spectacle of destruction. Before Banksy surprised that auction room in 2018 by automatically shredding his image Girl With Balloon, the band KLF had astounded the music world by burning a million pounds on the Hebridean island of Jura in the summer of 1994. And, in 2001, the artist Michael Landy set about destroying all his possessions inside an abandoned department store.

Wanton demolition is alarming, although anyone who has ever built a sandcastle or a snowman is familiar with the charge that the threat of obliteration brings to creativity. Certainly, the 2009 Turner prize winner Richard Wright regarded the eventual destruction of his intricate wall murals as part of their essence, and he claimed to be quite sanguine about it.

The images that make up The Currency were made on paper by hand in 2016 with enamel paint, then numbered, watermarked, hologrammed and micro-dotted, as well as stamped and randomly titled from Hirst’s favourite song lyrics, before being signed on the back.

The artist sees this series as a way of allowing the public to participate by buying, exchanging or selling his works. To the outside world, however, it is very much the sort of trickery that has given contemporary art a bad name. But then, without a bad name where would such art be? Rather like the punk wave in music in the late 1970s, the Young British Artists of the late 1990s would not have had much effect without slaying a few sacred, and eventually, pickled cows.

The Sex Pistols’ music was not tuneful or sweet, but it was exciting and Hirst was the YBA equivalent. Like Johnny Rotten, he posed the annoying questions that modern art has often asked, but more aggressively. Questions like, what is art and where does it differ from craft and design, or even a visual joke? We may all understand that a pill cabinet is a pill cabinet, but that if you fill an art gallery with them it means something more. But what value or meaning does it have if you then mass-produce these pill cabinets? NFTs have now taken such conceptual puzzles one step further by removing the need for any product at all.

Creation, destruction, sensation: Damien Hirst’s burning desire to destroy art worth £10m

For the Love of God, a lifesize cast of a human skull in platinum, by Damien Hirst. Photograph: Reuters

“If anyone was going to play with NFTs and their value, it was Damien Hirst,” said Louisa Buck, The Art Newspaper’s contemporary art correspondent, admitting that she is “not one of those who believe NFTs are the devil’s spawn”. “He has always been brilliant at playing with the art market. But a lot of the art he has made along the way, well, that is a different story.”

Buck points to the variable quality of the 223 Hirst works sold at auction in the controversial London “clearance” sale of 2008, work that ranged from the great to the “hideous”. It was a fiasco in which art dealers were allegedly forced to covertly buy back some work to protect the worth of the artist’s output.

“And when it comes to that diamond-encrusted skull [which Hirst initially claimed sold for £50m in 2007, before later backtracking], who knows if Hirst ever owned it, or who bought it,” said Buck. “All the same, he has done a fantastic job patrolling the territory which asks what is art and what is a commodity. And whatever happens next, he has already produced some of the most amazing art of the last few decades, pieces such as Mother and Child (Divided), the cow and calf in tanks, and the shark in formaldehyde. Or A Hundred Years, the fly installation. You should not forget the spot paintings either. Of course, he was referencing the art of people like Bridget Riley. He is steeped in art history.”

Not all are even slightly beguiled, however. This weekend, one of his artistic peer group told me that the fuss around Hirst was “almost as boring as his terrible work”. He compared it to giving space to Cliff Richard on music pages.

If nothing else, though, Hirst’s role as a motivator and promoter of the YBA movement was undeniable. His ambition was there from the first, when together with illustrious others, he set up an exhibition in a deserted Thames-side building called Freeze in 1988. Nearly empty on the day I visited, by lucky chance, back then, the fabled show vibrated with sheer nerve and visual exuberance. Sensation, the controversial YBA show at London’s Royal Academy, followed in 1997 and after that the rock-star lifestyle of a moneyed Bohemian awaited Hirst.

Today, he remains the sort of celebrity who attracts anecdotes. A friend, for instance, remembers him setting fire to a caravan at a music festival. And then came his Devon empire, including a stylish Ilfracombe restaurant, and the proliferation of spin paintings. Scandalised news coverage over the years has ranged from tame revelations that he did not make all his own work, to speculation about the veracity of his sunken treasure spoof, to recent claims he got rid of many staff during the pandemic.

More serious blows from art pundits have included the condemnation of Robert Hughes, the late champion of modern painting and sculpture. In a film for Channel 4, the Australian critic said Hirst functioned “like a commercial brand”, had “little facility” and that his shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was “the world’s most over-rated marine organism”.

Criticism of Hirst’s skill as a painter is more than justified, according to Buck: “Hirst came unstuck when he started to see himself as a painter, standing around in a studio in a smock and a beret, when he can barely draw,” she said.

The opening of the new NFT show has already prompted a reaction in kind from one critic. An artist called Victor smashed one of Hirst’s ceramic dotted plates on the pavement outside the Vauxhall gallery in protest, before burning a book which he plans to now sell for £250,000 as a comment on the “farcical art market”.

Art isn’t all about stunts, of course. But it is about stimulating images and ideas, some of which do look directly at the idea of art itself. The worth we place on an image is always up to us, just as with faith in a currency. As Hirst once said when asked if the shipwrecked treasures he presented at the Venice Biennale in 2017 were real: “Myth or fact … whatever you choose to believe.”

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