Q&A: Controversial artist Damien Hirst

The British artist is holding his first solo exhibition and also unveiled 14 statues about birth.

Damien Hirst is one of the world’s most influential and controversial artists and he’s just opened his biggest show yet in Qatar. In conjunction with the unveiling of 14 monumental statues about birth, he is also showcasing an exhibit called “Relics” – his first solo exhibition in the Middle East and a comprehensive survey of his previous works. He spoke to Al Jazeera about his inspiration, his involvement with Sheikha Meyassa, and the differences between art and science.

Al Jazeera: What was your inspiration for the fourteen statues that make up “The Miraculous Journey”?

Extended interview with Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst: When I was a kid I remember having family health guides and seeing developing fetus pictures in there and I always thought it was kind of crazy that before you’re born, before you even start your life, you have an incredible journey. And I thought about doing something with that, but because they’re so tiny and microscopic, you kind of think it would be nice to make it monumental. And then I never had the opportunity of anywhere to put it, or how it would come up, so it was just a drawing.

AJ: How did you develop the idea?

DH: I looked through with Sheikha Mayassa [Head of the Qatar Museums Authority] lots of old drawings and projects and she picked that out and said – oh, that would be great for the mother and baby hospital. And as soon as she said that it seemed like a fantastic idea, and we’ve been working for the last three years to make it.   

AJ: What was unusual about this project?

DH: Normally what happens is that you make a big sculpture, go to a gallery, and you speak to the gallery and you go “I’ve got this crazy idea” and can we find a site for it, or can we show it in someone’s garden or in a stately home. Then we’ll try and sell it, but you don’t know who you’re selling to, or even if you’ll sell it, but even if you do sell it you have to make it try and fit.

Whereas in this instance, we did it without a gallery and we found a site immediately.

Qatar is being molded. I went all over England and Europe to look at sculptures, some which were very embedded and had been there a long time and you think, oh, I am making something which is at the beginning of a city being formed – it’s not going anywhere, it’s going to stay there. As an artist that’s a really great feeling.

AJ: Your pieces often shock. How did you approach this commission?

DH: I’ve got no idea really what the reaction is going to be. Obviously it [Qatar] is not a culture that I’ve been brought up in myself. I mean, I’ve talked to people and tried to be understanding. But I think things need to grab your attention.

I’ve always been aware that if you make something shocking for the sake of shocking, then people just won’t look at it or they’ll walk away or they’ll say remove it. But I think you do have to get close to some uncomfortable things to make things that stay in your mind.

What I always like are mixed reviews. If some people love it and some people hate it, then you get people talking.

AJ: Were the exhibition and the sculptures planned at the same time?

DH: The project for the hospital was the first thing and then Sheikha Mayassa asked me if I wanted to do an exhibition at the same time, so we agreed to do the two together.

This is my biggest show ever – at the Al Riwaq space – it’s bigger than the Tate and they built this space, inside, to fit the works, which is great. Normally you just have to make the works fit the space. So it’s the first time I’ve ever had a space built around the works.  And I think it shows. I think it’s the nicest looking show I’ve ever done.

AJ: Have you tailored the show for the audience here at all?

Damien Hirst’s 14 sculptures portray the miracle of life [AFP]

DH: We did a competition for an artist to visit my studio and the Sheika is really into education, so we’re talking about how we might work that as we go forward.  But it’s kind of unknown. Every exhibition I ever had, the things you think people are going to get upset about they love and they things you think they’ll love they get upset about, so I think you just have to try and deal with it and explain what’s going on and where it’s coming from.

And we spent a lot of time on the wall texts to make sure that they explained things. There are huge cultural differences, but hopefully the art is universal enough to go beyond that.

AJ: You’ve often tackled science in your work, why is that?

DH: I love natural history museums. Sometimes you go in an art gallery and you’re sometimes intimidated by the girl at the desk and you think you can’t understand it because you think it’s something above you. Whereas you go in a natural history museum and everyone can enjoy it.  I’ve always thought a great reaction to art is “wow!” And I love science in the way it gives you information. And you can hide between science as well, you can do something quite expressive, but then present it scientifically. It has a logic in that way.

AJ: There is rumoured to be a lot of money being spent on art in this part of the world. Is that drawing in artists like you?

DH: I think everyone is buying less. When people were buying in my auction in 2008, a lot of people were buying at high prices, but I think things have settled down a lot since then and people have become a lot more discerning, everybody all over the world. It’s changed, it seems to be more realistic really. People are not just throwing money at things and buying things, I think they are being very careful.

Source : Al Jazeera

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