Portrait of the Artist: Damien Hirst's Obsessive Collecting Could Prove the Death of His Own Creativity, Writes Jacky Klein

By Klein, Jacky | New Statesman (1996), December 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Portrait of the Artist: Damien Hirst's Obsessive Collecting Could Prove the Death of His Own Creativity, Writes Jacky Klein


Klein, Jacky, New Statesman (1996)


The opening-night queues for Damien Hirst's exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery snaked out on to the pristine grass of Kensington Gardens. A consummate collector with a fortune worth more than [pounds sterling]100m, Hirst has acquired an artistic treasure trove in the course of his career. He has also amassed hordes of hangers-on: groomed and glistening models and celebrities, paparazzi and press, curators and admirers. This time, they had gathered not to admire Hirst's own work, but to see his "Murderme" art collection, appropriately named after one of his bank accounts.

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Hirst started collecting 15 years ago, exchanging works with his friends Tracey Emin, Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas. Since those days he has expanded it with his wealth, and it includes works by his A-list "heroes", such as Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. Hirst has even started to buy back his own work, in what he calls "[showing] confidence in your own product". But he has chosen not to include this in the exhibition, allowing others of his generation--particularly Lucas, whose pithy one-liners punctuate the show--to shine.

Work by a number of younger artists, many of them among the dozens of assistants Hirst employs in his studio, prevents the exhibition from degenerating to the box-ticking predictability of corporate art collections. The best is Tom Ormond, with Cluster Cottage, an unsettling reworking of the traditional English landscape genre, in which a thatched lakeside idyll is disturbed by acid-toned, space-age invaders. Other high points come with some unexpected juxtapositions and canny placements: Lucas's stark blue-neon coffin is paired with Angela Bulloch's mesmeric light-box modules, and Koons's joyous Moon (Yellow), an oversized helium balloon fashioned from steel, engages brilliantly with the gallery's classic central rotunda.

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And yet, disappointingly, Hirst's curatorial acumen is little in evidence here. He has a history of pioneering exhibition-making behind him, notably the provocative "Freeze", which he presented in 1988 while still studying at Goldsmiths College. For the Serpentine show, he spent months planning the hang, with a scale model of the gallery sitting next to him in his studio. But his personal investment in the show--he acted as buyer, selector and curator, as well as commissioner of a series of limited-edition prints and publisher-editor of the exhibition catalogue--gives rise to certain tensions and inconsistencies. As a collector, he has crammed far too much of the work into the space. Trusting his artist's eye, he has decided not to place labels within view of the actual pieces. But the series of minuscule captions at floor level is near impossible to read, and when you do bend down to see them, the descriptions fail to specify what materials the works are made from (often a fascinating clue to their meaning). While some of the connections between works are well made, others are glib or trite: an orange painting by Francis Bacon is placed next to an orange painting by Richard Prince. …

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