Monday, September 29, 2008

The Shark In The Machine

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Lungs of the Attention-Seeking Toddler (No. 1)

Under the title Confrontation, Apropos Damien, George Szirtes recently discussed Damien Hirst on his blog, in the light of the recent Sotheby’s auction. I agree with much of what he said, but not everything, and I am grateful to him for making me think harder about my attitude to Hirst and the YBA phenomenon. So I have taken some of his remarks as an entry point for a little meditation on the cuddly wide boy and what his work means, or doesn’t.


George writes that Hirst’s Shark “is startling … like a demon in Bosch, or even Michelangelo. Or the dog in Goya.” He goes on to say: “I am not comparing the shark to Goya… in terms of value but in terms of psychological location. Not that Goya's remarkable painting is anywhere near his greatest work... it is rather, stripped down vision and confrontation...Hirst's shark is a similar kind of confrontation.

...Confrontation is... a proper area for art. There is a process of reorientation within the world that is the natural product of all substantial art. It is like the discovery of a room in the soul that did not exist before and from whose windows everything looks different. That view - that difference - is something you have, thenceforth, to take into account."

But then, as George says, "there is a catch to the idea of confrontation... Confrontation as convention - the frayed and boring formula of the artist "challenging" the viewer - is so much rubbish unless the artist himself or herself is equally confronted and challenged."

And the artist cannot "challenge from a position of superiority, in didactic fashion. That old call to the artist - épater le bourgeois! - is pointless unless the artist too is scandalised. The 'bourgeois' is so used by now to being "challenged" that he finds it cosy. You don't confront or challenge a dog by feeding it...

...Hirst's first works were genuinely confrontational, not through aura, through what one knew, was told, or expected of them, but because they acted that way as physical objects. But you can't keep doing that in the same way. Not all the irony in the world can bring about that reorientation. What you have left to play with is aura. Aura and money. And so you carry making the two the same thing till you can no longer tell the difference between them.”


I think there is more than one catch for any confrontational object that aspires to being a work of art. Hirst’s shark may have been startling once upon a time, though it has always seemed rather old hat to me, a sad little echo of Duchamp, Warhol, Beuys, 'International Yves Klein Blue'... Perhaps it is apt to compare it to Goya’s dog (or a demon from Bosch or Michelangelo) in terms of “psychological location” as “a process of reorientation within the world”, though I have my doubts. Certainly the dog and the demons (many of them fish-demons by the way) instill a strong sense of dislocation, and perhaps the shark does this too.

But is this kind of confrontation/displacement enough? While I accept that the shark may be startling, I have difficulty believing that it really opens "a room in the soul that did not exist before". Is it really that different from something one might come across in a waxwork museum or sideshow? Of course, I realise that its being in a gallery-space is part of its essential quiddity, its raison d'etre, but again, is that enough? We encounter many startling things in the course of a life, things on a par with and far exceeding the shark in their ability to startle or shock. But these encounters do not present us with reflective, coherent worldlets, nor do we expect them to. That experience is reserved for art, and works of art should be required to deliver it.

I agree that great art has often been confrontational (though I think humility is an underrated virtue in artists). As George says, confrontation is “a proper area for art”. Mere staged confrontation though, without any distillation or engagement, is not art. It is not even in the same arena. It pushes just one button, twangs one, threadbare chord. If a person has any imagination at all, it is the easiest thing in the world to dream up a confrontational work, a semi-shocking installation or what used to be called “a happening”. In fact, I can think of one Hirst himself might put together, as a properly confrontational terminus to his dead animal series. He could simply exhibit himself, inside a large glass tank, naked on Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, literally doing what his entire oeuvre, up till then, had only accomplished figuratively.

In contrast to Hirst’s shark, neither the demons nor the dog are merely confrontational. Take the demons in Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. They are part of a complex and ingenious tableaux, an imagining of the late Medieval machinery of Hell. They are nightmarish, allusive, hallucinatory and blackly comic (Bruegel’s are even more so), eddies from the muddy swirl, our irrepressible, writhing mortality; as Milosz puts it: 'If not for the existence of Earth, would there be a Hell?'. The demons are also exciting, possibly the Medieval equivalent of a good horror flick (the Exorcist or Alien of its day). It is difficult to know what a person in the Netherlands of the 15th Century might have felt when confronted by them. What they do retain is an undeniable power, and their busyness and cruelty (and distortions and deformities) have a contemporary resonance.

Goya’s dog is something else entirely. It is from part of a series of murals called ‘The Black Paintings’, which Goya apparently painted on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo (‘House of the Deaf Man’), a country house outside Madrid he occupied in the early 1820's. Curiously, Goya was in fact stone deaf by this stage.

The murals are, I believe, badly damaged. There may be essential parts missing, lost when they were removed from the walls, mounted and framed for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, after which they were donated to the Prado. Furthermore, their provenance is now seriously being questioned, with Goya’s son Javier (who occupied the house after his father died) being put forward as the one who may have actually painted the murals.

As it is (as far as I can judge from the reproductions), the dog painting emanates a kind of desolation: the trusting creature is emerging (from earth or water or simply abstract paint) into a kind of scorched emptiness, putting its nose above the parapet into – what? Nothingness? Hell? George Szirtes' “potent bareness”?

It is almost inevitable that we will read too much into such an image. We are approaching it post Beckett, with the existential floodlights blazing. What is remarkable to me is how much expression Goya (or whoever) was able to put into such a tiny profile, almost a silhouette: a dog’s dark head, its one (bewildered? terrified?) eye. The image has a mystery, horror and compassion way out of Hirst’s league. Whatever this singular vision means, if it is supposed to be viewed as part of the ‘Black’ series or was even visited and contemplated by anyone other than Goya while he was alive, it is clear to me that it has been filtered, and has come through the wringer of a unique imagination.

What the demons and the dog have in common is an engagement with the human predicament. They are in it, along with us, up to their eyes. Far from merely being ironic/confrontational displacements or quasi-surreal gestures, they are, in their own contexts, utterly real. And a measure of this reality, this engagement, is something necessary to all works of art, minor, good or great. I do not think Hirst’s shark possesses this. It is a coldly removed installation, similar to his recent diamond-studded skull, as impersonal as the money it generates.

Then, there is that title: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living’. I am not sure whether we are meant to attach this title to the shark as a deadly serious ‘message’, smirking ‘irony’ or both. In any case, when I think of the shark, that ridiculously pompous sentence keeps replaying itself like a jingle: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Silence In the Lungs of the Attention-Seeking Toddler’. It seems to me like a thoroughly dead giveaway, a little window into Hirst’s tiny imagination and gargantuan ego, as po-faced as the other, more recent and more twee: ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.’

What Hirst’s dead animal installations say to me, overwhelmingly, is: Look at the one that didn’t get away! Look at what I’ve imprisoned! Look at my acquisitions! Is it really likely that Hirst was challenged or confronted (much less scandalised) by whatever inspired his tanked shark? I strongly suspect that the idea of the shark, Hirst’s overwhelming desire to make a big splash, looms far larger than the thing’s mere physical presence, startling though this may be. It’s the audacity of it, the bigness and the brashness. And behind this is Hirst’s complacent voice, somewhat distracted, already moving the punters on to the next sensational exhibit. Hirst is really little more than a collector of novelties. He couldn’t give a toss what these ‘mean’, other than how this might increase his notoriety and (obviously) wealth. I have heard him in interviews. His crassness is painful to listen to and has much in common with that of the speaker in Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:
…..Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me. [my italics]

“Aura and money”, as George says. There, I completely agree with him. Rather than opening windows in most people's souls, I think Hirst's shark (along with his other gimmicks) opens windows of opportunity for the more egotistical, wannabe dilettantes, in exactly the same way that the Big Brother fishtank became THE destination for a hoard of DIY celebs. A direct line to the inner-infant scream: Meeee!!! All you need do is to tune in and 'get it.'

Discussion continued HERE

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reginald Shepherd 1963-2008

I was stunned to hear that Reginald Shepherd has just died, though he had been gravely ill for some time, and had even written about it in some detail on his blog.

He was an extraordinary poet and critic, his blog always a real pleasure to read. After an argument on the net, stemming from a misunderstanding, we made up and became friends, exchanging emails on a fairly regular basis. I will miss him.

In a post titled 'Why I Write' Reginald stated 'I write because I would like to live forever'. I have come to appreciate the braveness and honesty of that declaration, a shout, a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the inevitable. And now that inevitable has arrived, tragically early (he was 6 years younger than me, and probably had a great deal more to say).

If you have not encountered Reginald's poetry or prose, here is the first part of YOU, THEREFORE, addressed to his partner Robert Philen:

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name...

You can read the poem in full here:


The poet and critic Katy Evans-Bush kindly informed me of his death this evening, though I had already come across the news a little earlier on Andrew J. Sheilds blog.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A Note On The Weather

howth & rainbow 3

howth & rainbow 2

Amazing clearing in the weather this evening.

Looking out to sea from the railway bridge in Blackrock, I watched a rainbow build itself from a feint section, a pillar levitating just beyond Howth Head. Or rather, I did not watch it grow, but each time I glanced back at it it had strengthened, till it claimed an enormous wedge of sky, the air charged with grainy bluegoldgrey. The deepening richness was musical, steepening chords, a glissando, a choir.

Other people had stopped on the bridge to watch: a woman with a labrador, another man with a camera, the woman in the knitted cap in the photo, who turned to me as I was leaving and said: "It's like a compensation." So it is.