Few artists share Damien Hirst's power to shock and invigorate the debate surrounding contemporary art. The enfant terrible of the 1990s YBA era, Hirst is today one of the most successful artists in the world. His works’ bling, morbid spectacle and exquisite beauty are all part of a profound artistic project. Hirst explores the relationships between life, death, art, science and consumerism. His sensationalism, provocation and self-promotion play upon preconceptions of what art should be. He has refashioned the role of the artist as visionary craftsman into that of contemporary impresario.
Hirst came to prominence as the leading light of the Young British Artists who emerged in London during the late 1980s. He studied at Goldsmiths under Michael Craig-Martin, and organised the formative Freeze exhibition of 1988, which first drew the art world’s attention to the YBAs. In 1992 his work was included in Charles Saatchi’s Young British Artists exhibition. He won the Turner Prize in 1995 for a body of work including his bisected cow and calf, Mother and Child (Divided) (1993). His preserved tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), formed the infamous centrepiece of Saatchi’s monumental Royal Academy YBA exhibition, Sensation, in 1997. In the era of ‘Cool Britannia’, Britpop and explosive youth culture, Hirst was part of a generation that put London on the map.
Hirst has created many iconic and inventive series over the past three decades. A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s head, flies and an Insect-O-Cutor, captivated Hirst’s hero Francis Bacon on its 1990 debut. Hirst’s first works using butterflies, both alive and incarcerated in paint, were shown the following year. His ‘spot’ and ‘spin’ paintings both began to appear from the mid-1990s. His pills and medicine-cabinets led to the opening of his Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, London, in 1998. Like his animals in formaldehyde, these sculptures reflect a keen interest in Minimalism and containment. In 2007 he produced perhaps his most controversial work, For the Love of God: a platinum-cast human skull studded with 8,601 diamonds.
More recently, Hirst’s magnum opus Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable cast a spell on Venice in 2017. He presented a hoard of wondrous sculptures and artefacts, said to have been retrieved from the Indian Ocean. The precious cargo, Hirst’s story told, had been lost in a shipwreck more than 2,000 years ago. From pristine simulations of barnacles and coral to an accompanying Netflix documentary detailing the excavation, the exhibition’s magic was wholly conceived. Any artistic encounter, Hirst suggested, demands a certain suspension of disbelief: through our faith in art, perhaps, we might live forever. ‘There has only ever been one idea,’ he says, ‘and it’s the fear of death; art is about the fear of death.’