A Thirst for Damien Hirst in Distant Deserts

04/06/2012 5:23 PM |

This is not an artists rendering of futuristic grain silos in LA. Its not even an artists rendering of some buildings in Doha, Qatar. But the notion of an artists rendering might be a good thing to keep in mind.
  • This is not an artist’s rendering of futuristic grain silos in LA. Nor is it an artist’s rendering of some buildings in Doha, Qatar. But the notion of an ‘artist’s rendering’ might be a good thing to keep in mind.

Although I don’t typically give enough of an airborne expletive about artist Damien Hirst to seek out news related to him, I keep encountering his artwork name in curious contexts, or unexpected contexts, or obvious enough contexts that nonetheless have led me, of late, to care just enough to think about the fellow and share here the results of those thoughts.

Thus the coining (perhaps, for maybe Twain got to it first) of ‘douche-bathery‘ with relation to Hirst’s barely creative inventive appropriations of Mother Nature’s faunal output creations.

And thus the follow-up thereto, a passed-baton sort justification for such claims about artwork things I hadn’t felt merited much explanation, at least not the book-length opining Julian Spalding has doled out with Con Art—Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can. But he actually did that, and it might actually make some waves.

Yet unless those waves rage waters all the way from London to the Persian Gulf, they’re unlikely to do much harm to the next stage of Mr. Hirst’s current show at the Tate Modern. For there’s already been a far quainter ripple effect for him in the same direction.

A forthcoming stop on the exhibition’s tour will be in Doha, Qatar, by invitation of the Qatar Museums Authority, which, according to an article in the Economist, is spending upwards of $3.2 million dollars just to sponsor it. Yet take note: the QMA is by no means bringing Hirst to Doha simply because he’s a big name. Rather, according to the head of the QMA, Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, they’re planning to showcase him due to the ‘communicative’ force of his work. Ostensibly, anyway. The article quotes her introduction to Hirst’s catalogue for the Tate exhibition: “‘Art—even controversial art—can unlock communication between diverse nations, peoples and histories.'”

Subject of catalog aside, one might well concur that art can, at times, serve as a catalyst for perhaps otherwise unlikely dialogues, or that it might have the capacity to foster empathy or understanding. At the very least, one should hope that such yields are neither completely imaginary nor entirely beside the point.

Yet is it sincere to suggest that Hirst’s work really achieves that? Even, by a stretch, remotely? Is his work ever less than utterly unto and about itself and notions of its increasing worth?

At the same time, the article is not necessarily about sincerity. Neither is it solely about Damien Hirst. It’s not even really about art, I would posit.

It is about, on the one hand, the “culture queen” of Qatar, supposedly “the art world’s most powerful woman,” the aforementioned Shiekha Mayassa Al Thani. She is the 29 year old daughter of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the absolute monarch reigning over one of the world’s wealthiest citizenries, according to per-capita GDP, and a dangerously hydrocarbonatedly booming economy—so booming that it grew somewhere between 16% and 19% in 2010, more than any other economy in the world. Dangerously, though? Well, it’s almost entirely thanks to oil and gas reserves, naturally (indeed), which presents two dilemmas: such reserves can’t last forever, one presumes; and their abundance makes energy production and consumption so cheap for Qataris, who are not charged for water or electricity usage, that the nation also has the world’s highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, measuring at least three times that of the United States. For more such eye-opening statistics, see Wikipedia (obviously).

It’s not that latter dilemma that’s at the crux of the ‘danger’ discussion, however. The concern is more related to lasting growth, which simply cannot last at such rates and on such foundations. More pointedly, then, it’s about lasting wealth, which might have certain ways of lasting.

Thus the other-hand element of the article: the royal family’s copious spending on new schools, bigger and better universities, facilities to attract an international film industry, various museums and, not least, highly secretive acquisitions of expensive artworks, purchases which have more recently acquired a Western hue. According to the Economist:

Over the past seven years the Al Thani family is estimated to have spent at least $1 billion on Western painting, sculpture and installations, including the last privately held version of Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players” for over $250m—a record price for a work of art. That acquisition, which took place in early 2011 but was reported only last month, is just the latest in a series of purchases that includes some of the very best works made by Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, a number of them bought for record prices. Speculation about the Al Thanis’ art buying has been fueled by the family’s blank refusal to confirm or deny any of the rumours and its reluctance to clarify whether its acquisitions are private or on behalf of the state—or even to explain how they might benefit Qatar’s citizens.

What about all that talk of “unlocking communication”? What about Sheikha Mayassa’s declarations that “attracting local audiences is a priority”? Is there a fetish in the area for eternally marinated animals and skull bling? Or more importantly, is luring large local audiences even possible, especially the most local of them all? For while the citizenry of Qatar is small, approximately 300,000, the real population is much larger, at nearly 1.7 million. A significant portion of those ‘others’ are immigrant workers, whose terms of employment are held by many to be not unlike indentured servitude or, essentially, slavery. In an attempt to remedy this image in recent years, the Emir has spent around $1 billion to build Barwa al Baraha, i.e. ‘Worker’s City.’ One might bet that it’s nice enough. But one might safely bet higher on those communities being less than keen on seeing flashy art in flashy museums.

Meanwhile, in case that $1 billion price tag on workers’ projects appears impressive, the Emir is also alleged to have just spent perhaps half that much on a brand new personal jet from Boeing—its biggest jet, no less, the 747-8 Intercontinental. It can carry 460 passengers, which is probably very handy when you’re courting heads of state, emissaries, business partners and, of course, the art world elite. For that’s part of all this too, to be sure, and there are several other familiar names in the Economist article.

For example, it opens with a description of a dinner recently held in Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, at which the roster of dealers, collectors, curators and art-producing others included Larry Gagosian, Dakis Jannou, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, whose retrospective exhibition is currently in Doha. Interestingly, not only do Koons and Murakami, like Hirst, attract buyers with fathomless wallets, but all three are also well known to make produce their work at quite a remove, to say the very least, by hiring scores of assistants, often artists, to do the work for them. Murakami, for example, had over 200 craftsmen working ceaseless shifts to get his Doha show done on time, primarily to ensure the timely completion of the show’s keystone piece—a gargantuan painting that spans 100 meters.

Sounds like so much Hirstian douche-bathery to me.

A flood of it, really. In a place where the geography is mostly desert.

As a side note, although Hirst himself was apparently not present at the aforementioned dinner, the setting nonetheless brings to mind something from Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel, The Map and the Territory. Its protagonist is an artist named Jed Martin, whose various struggles with life, creativity and success find pictorial representation in a work that both frustrates him and exhausts his capacities—a painting titled Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst Dividing Up the Art Market, in which the artists are depicted together in a fancy hotel suite. Telling, too, might be the description of the urban skyline in the background.

At this juncture, I’ve either belabored or come full-circle enough with all this to get to my point. Yet unfortunately, and admittedly, it is possible that I don’t have a real point. My aim is not really to deride or pass judgment on any of the above characters. Royal families and other wealthy folks could probably spend money in worse ways, after all, and there are likely worse ways to deligitimize oneself as an artist a person who commands things to be made. What’s more, to really address much of this would require addressing the problem of the audience, too, not just notions of presumed wealth, presumed value, presumed market convictions—and so many other presumed so forths.

And in a sense, if there are people out there who want to call certain things ‘art’ and spend billions of units of currency on them, I’d have to refer back to the airborne expletive I generally do not give. The bloated markets and lofty prices so often associated with certain swaths of the contemporary art world are as difficult to sincerely loathe or love as they are to truly understand.

Yet it is actually these notions of loftiness and flight with which I’d like to close. For it seems that the most financially mighty members of the art world might be led to distance themselves so far from their art work that it’s not unlike an act of running away from the same—a dashing away, a dashing out.

That might be intuited in various ways. Perhaps that’s just the way things go with outsize wealth. For is it not feasible to characterize an ultimately untenable form of growth as an escape, as a flight away from some basic form? Might systems or individuals dash far enough away from integrity to eventually dash themselves out?

I think that is an interesting item to think a bit more about.

And sincerely.

You can follow Paul D’Agostino on Twitter @postuccio