Seeing his piece ‘Let’s Eat Outdoors Today’ at the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture show in Feburuary made me realise how much I want to make art that is diametrically opposed to his.
If you haven’t seen it, let me explain. It’s a plastic ‘room’ divided in two, with a barbecue with raw meat on it in one, and a garden picnic set up in the other, with food on the table, and a real cow’s head complete with leaking blood under the table. Oh yes, and let me mention the flies: flies thickly clumped on the raw food, flies paddling in the blood, flies crawling up the walls, dead flies littering the floor. Apparently there were maggots in there somewhere as well, but I didn’t feel inclined to look for them. Can’t think why. It could have had something to do with the smell. In other words, this piece is along the same lines as the shark in formaldehyde, the dissected cow etc etc.
‘Why is so much of Hirst’s work about death? “It’s every artist’s main theme,” he says. “There isn’t really anything else. It just depends how far you stand back from it. Since I was a child, death is definitely something that I think about every day. But I think that everybody does. You try and avoid it, but it’s such a big thing that you can’t. That’s the frightening thing, isn’t it? It’s like everything you do in life is pointless if you just take a step back and look at it.” ‘ (Quote from Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2011)
Of course, I’m not trying to dodge the issue of death. It’s the only certainty in this life, and something we all have to cope with at one time or another. It’s one of the most important issues of them all. And one that gives rise to a genre in the Western history of art that I really like, that of the seventeenth century Dutch tradition of vanitas painting. Like this painting, ‘Vanitas quiet life’, by one of my favourite Dutch artists, Peter Claesz. I suppose these paintings could be construed as morbid, (though I don’t understand them as such) but what they don’t do is revel in the baseness of blood and guts, and they are never frivolous or sordid. They were intended to make the viewer have a serious take on life, and cause her to ask herself fundamental, if uncomfortable, questions. I’m all for that. It’s a noble aim for art. What Hirst seems to want to do is something far less profound. And he continues to find other ways of doing exactly the same thing over and over again. However, perhaps that’s just my own jaundiced view, and you don’t see it that way. Fair enough.
‘Vanitas quiet life’ – Pieter Claesz
In a real sense archaeology is all about death, so you could argue that the art I make has death as its central starting point. Hirst could be right in what he says. Yet I approach it with an emphasis on movement, on linear qualities, on light and dark, on life. I don’t delight in the dirtiness of death, maybe because I’m of the opinion that death is not the end of the human story. I rather think of Man as made of dust but destined for glory. I include the concept of physical death, rather than dwell on the physicality of decay and putrefaction, so that I can learn more about life.
I came across a photo of ‘Let’s Eat Out Today’ as I was tidying my studio this morning, and it reminded me how pivotal seeing that work was to the making of ‘Myth: Balder and the Ice Stars’, the centre piece of my degree show. So when it came to thinking about the Norse god Balder, the god of light and learning, I felt that this was an appropriate subject to paint as a protest against what I see as a sordid cul-de-sac of current British media-prominent art, enhanced by Saatchi publicity and typified by the YBA. In the myth, Balder is murdered, and the nine worlds weep. In my version of the myth, Rinda the goddess of the frozen earth weeps tears that form beautiful ‘stars’ in the ice to remember him by. Attempts are made to bring the light god back to the land of the living, but they fail. More tears. I saw the ice stars in a frozen lake last November, just a few months ago, and took lots of photos of them. Maybe Rinda is still weeping. Now there’s a thought. There’s a lot to weep about.