In conversation with Damien Hirst
FROM IDLER 10, JULY 1995
The madness begins.
Someone had taken us out to the Groucho Club, and while there Damien Hirst came over to our table and started talking about dogs. Recently back from a long stay in Berlin, he was throwing himself into Soho life with unparalleled gusto.
To my amazement he had heard of, seen and enjoyed the Idler. I spent the next few weeks trying to track him down in order to get an interview.
I finally found myself walking down to the Chelsea mews flat he was then renting with his girlfriend Maya one Saturday lunchtime. He peeled a fifty pound note off a pile on the sitting room table, and we walked down the pub over the road, where we drank all afternoon.
I was so skint at the time that I had to borrow a tenner at the end of the interview to get to my next destination.
Hirst is probably one of the most inspiring people I’ve met. He pours ideas at you, he’s infected by a deep love of life and is completely fearless. He makes you feel good.
He also went on to give us a limited edition of 25 signed cigarette butts, which we gave away to readers.
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We met the artist Damien Hirst and discussed smoking and drinking, working and living.
IDLER: Someone told me that a few years ago, you had a period of six months or so before you started working, when you were just drinking and not working … ?
HIRST: It’s not actually like that. In fact, the first piece of art I ever sold, I paid someone else to make the next one, so I could actually keep going out drinking. I sold a medicine cabinet for ��500, and I was making spot paintings as well. And then I paid somebody ��200 to make three spot paintings for me, and sold those. The idea of the spot paintings were that they’re an endless series, so the idea of painting spots for the rest of my life, after I’d done five, was completely tedious. I could visualise the whole thing, so it then becomes a bind physically to get in there and paint it, when somebody else could do it just the same. I numbered all the colours and I numbered all the spaces and drew the spots out and said this is where they go. So I didn’t actually put the paint on the thing, which is what some people have a problem with. But then architects don’t build their own houses. A lot of people thought I wasn’t doing anything because I was spending a lot of time socialising and going out, but I’ve always managed to get work actually done.
IDLER: Quite a lot of writers have a year or so in their young life when they’re not actually doing much, but is when their ideas are developed. Everything that follows after that is a variation on those original ideas.
HIRST: It’s not like that for me. Whenever you look back, you can always pull something out of it, no matter what you’re doing. There’s always something you missed or something you didn’t notice or somehow you got wrong … I don’t really have a beginning. Obviously ideas are formulated early on, we’re human beings, we go like that. One thing leads to another with my work. Like The Acquired Inability To Escape, I made those sculptures and became, like, Damien Hirst. So then I made new sculptures and cut them in half. So in a way I don’t go back to the beginning, I go back to the last lot.
IDLER: So it’s one idea that’s constantly mutating and growing tentacles.
HIRST: Because it’s visual art, a lot of it comes from childhood experience but then a lot comes from the visual language – in advertising and stuff like that – which is around us. Commercials are so contemporary and up to date that when you’re involved in that visual world, you can’t really go backwards. Oxo commercials from the war wouldn’t really make very good artworks … or maybe they would. As an artist you’ve just got to look everywhere.
IDLER: The Idler theory of creativity is that you need these little patches of just wandering around and staring out of the window and going out with your friends and stuff …
HIRST: But I think you can do that on the move. Whenever I go to another city to do an art exhibition, the only way to get through it is to get drunk, because it’s so similar to the last one. Every time I go somewhere, I’ve got to meet these collectors and these people who want to meet me and ask the same questions … and you get drunk and you hang out. That idea of an artist is being an alcoholic, suffering, no-money bum … it’s because of that.
IDLER: What do you mean?
HIRST: A lot of people think all artists should hang out together and really love each other and all that, but if you sit down with an artist and they go, “oh, my work’s about the way society’s congenitally deformed …” I just want to go, oh fuck off, get the beers in. Artists are like everybody else. I think as an artist you have to reinvent yourself every day. Which I think is what you do anyway as a person, which is why people fall out, split up, get together, get into new bands or new ideas. It’s like a turning over.
IDLER: Keep moving.
HIRST: Yup. You have to keep turning the thing over. Like my spin paintings which I’m doing now. You could say they’re new works, new ideas. But they’re not, they’re an old idea from when I was at school.
IDLER: So your art is a relationship between the stimuli of now and things from your childhood?
HIRST: Yeah, but it gets quite complicated because I guess it all boils down to an urge to live forever. The goal in life is to be solid, whereas the way that life works is totally fluid, so you can never actually achieve that goal.
IDLER: How do you mean solid?
HIRST: How you can’t say one thing one day and something else the next day, it’s not acceptable. And you say, OK, I changed my fucking mind. But everybody changes their minds. The idea of solidity is somebody who always says the right thing at the right time and knows what they’re doing and is concrete: “This is what I think and you can rely on that forever.” It’s like, a sexy girl in a magazine is always going to be that sexy. A death thing comes into it. Immortality is really desirable, I guess. In terms of images, anyway. It’s a contradiction between images and desire. I was having sex with fourteen- year old girls when I was fourteen. But if I was to do it now, it would be really bad. But then you still find them sexy, so does that mean you’re a pervert? So if you’re having sex with a fourteen-year old girl when you’re fourteen you’re always going to find them sexy but you’re not fourteen any more. You’ve got to change.
IDLER: I don’t really follow that.
HIRST: Well, you’re saying that art is like a mixture of your formative ideas from the past and keeping up to date with contemporary ideas. And the answer to the question is, there’s a lot of people in here. When somebody says, how do you feel, it depends who they’re talking to. Are you talking to the one who gets really depressed or the one who goes out boozing and gets drunk, or are you talking to the fourteen year old one who used to fuck fourteen year old girls? It’s so fluid, the whole thing has to be so fucking fluid, when the urge in life is to be solid: get a house, live forever, say what you mean. I mean, I could forgive Hitler, if he walked in now, if his Mum walked in, “oh, he had such a bad life, he didn’t know what he was doing as a kid, all the other kids picked on him” – oh, well, you’re OK really. But you can’t. I’m rambling. What were you saying again?
IDLER: Well, I’m trying to think about the process of getting ideas.
HIRST: I get them everywhere. I’m always on the lookout for anything – all the time. It’s so easy to do that. And everybody does it. You walk around the streets and see a Benson & Hedges commercial and it’s got an anagram in it and you try and work it out. It’s that kind of looking. Sometimes when you’re drunk you can see better. I have titles floating around in my head; I have sculptures floating around in my head. It’s like a collage. Or if someone says something. The title of my film is Julie and Jane. I overheard someone say “Julia and Jay” – who I work with in my gallery – and I thought they’d said “Julia and Jane”. And I thought maybe that would work as a title.
IDLER: It’s a question of grabbing hold of those things and realising that they’re interesting. Everybody experiences that process of things occurring to them, but what artists do I suppose is actually act on them.
HIRST: What I really like is minimum effort for maximum effect. Like with Picasso’s Bull’s Head – a bike seat and handlebars making up the bull’s head. Such a brilliant thing because it takes that tiny amount of effort to create . To connect a bull and a bicycle makes no sense at all. But it doesn’t matter, because visually it’s so strong that you think of an everyday object in a weird way.
HIRST: I think an ashtray is the most fantastically real thing. I went to some posh person’s house and they had this tiny fucking little ashtray, it was about two inches by one inch. And they had a beautiful house. It’s like they’re trying to reduce that horror to such a point. You could only fit about three cigarette butts in it, then they’d empty it. It’s almost like that dot on the TV, it never fucking disappears. If you have a party then you’ve got to have an ashtray, but you get it so small … to isolate the horror.
IDLER: It should be celebrated. That [pointing at grotty pub ashtray] is a really honest ashtray.
HIRST: Yeah exactly. You could have it full like that [imagining huge mound of butts]. In an artwork you’re always looking for artistic decisions, so an ashtray is perfect. An ashtray has got life and death. It’s like a graveyard, if you want to get metaphorical about it. But I quite like the idea of all these people’s mouths and dirty habits all combined into one place. I’m making a sculpture for my show in New York called Party Time which is an eight foot ashtray, made to the scale of a normal ashtray, blown up in white fibreglass. It’s filled with bin liners full of normal size cigarette butts, absolutely packed. So it’ll smell like smoke. But it’s the opposite of that thing at the party: such a simple idea – if you’re going to do that, then I’m going to do this. It’s not like Claes Oldenberg where you create huge-size cigarette butts. If you enlarge the ashtray and leave the butts the same size and call it Party Time, there’s something positive about it. There’s a great book I read called Cigarettes Are Sublime. You realise how smoking’s never talked about. It’s probably the most powerful thing of the 20th century. There’s no country in the world where smoking is allowed where they don’t smoke. Even where it isn’t allowed they still find a way to smoke. People are killing themselves. I think suicide is the most perfect thing you can do in life. The whole thing is you don’t know when you’re going to die. It makes everything not make sense, there’s this unknown factor. Whereas if you suddenly go, OK, I choose to die now, you take the matter into your own hands. So smoking is the perfect way to commit suicide without actually dying. I smoke because it’s bad, it’s really simple. So people can’t come up to me and say, oh it’s bad for you, don’t do it. I mean, I don’t trust people who don’t smoke, because I think the way the world works, I can’t imagine not. If I don’t smoke, I feel like a poof.
IDLER: Why are The Beatles so good?
HIRST: I think they had an incredible freedom. They grew up in public, which is perfect. They were given freedom by the record company. I remember that brilliant thing in that film John and Yoko, where McGann plays John. John Lennon is arguing with George Martin about Revolution 9 off the White Album. And George Martin’s going, look John, don’t you think it’s a bit too experimental. And John Lennon says, we wouldn’t have got where we are today without being experimental, you cunt. And George Martin says to George Harrison, hey, can’t you sort him out. So George Harrison says, maybe it is too experimental, and John goes oh yeah, like fucking O- Bla-Di-O-Bla-Da. That kind of reality of The Beatles is fantastic, you’ve got both songs, they both got through.
IDLER: George Martin is a fascinating character, just continuing to do his job through all The Beatles changes.
HIRST: I think you need someone like that. I have that with Jay [Jopling, Hirst's dealer]. George Martin said he didn’t really know anything about pop music and just let them get on with it. That’s what Jay does with me. He’ll call me five times if I have a crazy idea and say: are you sure, are you sure. If I say yes, I am, in the end I just do it, even if it costs a lot of money. Like when I was doing the cow cut in half in Venice last year, it cost ��50,000. He called me up for three months beforehand, saying you’ve got to do something great. I said, OK, I’ve got this idea, Cow. He worked it out, it was ��50,000 and in the end we did it. He was so freaked out because it cost so much money. Jay said once, hey, why don’t you do one of those sculptures like you did before, the great ones? I was going, which ones? The one with the cigarettes, the one with the lamb? And I pinned him down, and in the end he said the ones that cost fuck-all to make and we can sell for loads of money. On one level, that’s Jay’s perfect idea for a sculpture.
IDLER: Titles are important to you.
HIRST: I think they just come out of an urge for naming, it’s like naming your fucking baby. It’s like, you’re called Tom, and you can never separate that from you.
IDLER: Why do so many people do things which they call “Untitled”?
HIRST: It’s a big responsibility. You have to do what you’ve already done in the work in a verbal way, and if you’re a visual artist there’s not really any reason to do it. [picks nose, displays result]
IDLER: Nose-picking is a also great pleasure.
HIRST: Oh yeah. Anything you can do with your hands and feet. Great. Arse picking.
IDLER: Do you pick your arse?
HIRST: Er … I’ve messed about with it?
IDLER: Er… lost the thrust … er … why do people say “untitled”?
HIRST: It’s such a fucking stupid thing, it’s like untitled, no title. You don’t want to title it, but if you don’t title it, there’s no fucking way of knowing which sculpture you’re talking about. So if someone is writing an article about your work in the Sunday Times, then they go, the one with the blue dot and the thing on the bottom.
IDLER: Is it a cop-out?
HIRST: I think it’s a cop-out. I think if you’ve made it, why not name it? I made one untitled piece. I had two love hearts painted on the wall, huge, one broken, in red paint. If you buy it you get a tin of red paint and a brush and a drawing. It’s called Untitled Wall Drawing (Without Emotion).
IDLER: And the untitled bit is part of the thing.
HIRST: Exactly. It’s untitled but I’ve titled it anyway. It’s such a crass idea – you’re either in love or out of love. I keep having this mad idea which is to paint smiley faces on all the yellow dots on my spot paintings. It’s such a fucking obvious idea. It’s like a love heart and a broken love heart … the smiley face is one of the best images of the 20th century. Totally international. Shame about Acid House. I quite like the Blue Circle cement logo as well. I thought it might be quite good to get some kids to do it. People draw ‘em on walls. If you get a paint blob anywhere, you’ll get a smiley face on it. Or a sad face. A line and two dots. I love the idea of the whole universe being divided that way – in love or out of love.
WHAT DO I WANT
IDLER: I suppose it goes back to what you were saying about the quest for solidity. Science is explaining everything and figuring it all out. It’s heading towards this one point where everything is going to be finally explained. But they’re never gonna reach that point.
HIRST: There’s no possible way you can get what you want. Someone told me the other day that it’s much better to rent a house than to buy a house. You can probably save like thirty quid a week by buying a house – but what you get for that is a massive responsibility that’s going to fuck you up in the future. What happens if in six months you change your mind? You’ve got to sell the fucking house, and you’re not going to get what you paid for it …
IDLER: Renting vs owning is like happy vs sad.
HIRST: Renting’s happier. It’s fluid, as well. If you’re renting, you’re fluid. If you buy, you’re fixed in a way that’s negative creatively.
IDLER: You could rent out your house.
HIRST: But then you’re a landlord, for fuck’s sake. What happens if they trash the house? Big responsibility. I wrote a poem. It’s called Now I Know What I Want. It goes:
Now, I know what I want.
To live forever.
For a while.
IDLER: I love poems like that. My friend James wrote one which went:
My name is James.
My name is James Parker.
My name is Harry Horseshit.
HIRST: That’s fantastic. Everyone could write that poem.
My name is Damien.
My name is Damien Hirst.
My name is Harry Horseshit.
My name is Nigel Dogshit.
MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER
HIRST: I had this idea for a video where you have two people talking, and one says, hey, how you doing? And the other says, great, and the first one says, yeah but how do you really feel? Oh, not so bad. Yeah, but how do you really feel? Oh, fucking shit. It was going to go from great to shit to great again.
IDLER: We had two cover lines once, one which said Cocktail Nation: Fabulous Lifestyles of the Young and Exotic, and another one which said Life is Shit.
HIRST: The thing is, there is that separation, but there isn’t really. You need to fool other people you have a fabulous lifestyle. I mean, everybody knows that Tony Curtis doesn’t really have a fabulous lifestyle because he’s such a fucking tosspot, he can’t possibly have one. It rubs off on Jamie Lee, it’s like a virus spread through all these rich people.
IDLER: We were getting annoyed the other day about people who go, yeah, great!, fabulous! when you ask them how they are on the phone. Because they can’t be.
Hirst: But like I said before, there’s a lot of people in your head and it depends who you’re asking. I was sat talking to a girlfriend once and she was so depressed, she was going “I can’t do anything with my life, I’m shit.” It went on for three hours this conversation. I was trying to cheer her up. I’d got into this situation where we’d pierced through the layers and got through to this deep depression underneath. I was going, cheer yourself up, pull yourself out of it, and I’d been going out with her for three years. And the phone rings and it’s an old friend of hers from Italy. And she says, “Hi! How are you? Haven’t seen you for ages! Let’s go out!” And I’d just spent three hours trying to cheer her up, and the phone rings and some stranger can just do it like that. You can go through the layers but on the top layer that’s the only relationship they had. So if someone cries now in front of me I just go, fuck off, and kick them. Not quite. I liked that thing in The Idler about dreaming being like virtual reality.
IDLER: People seem to ignore that. [Damien pours half a pint into what's left in his pint glass and it makes exactly a full pint]
HIRST: Isn’t that amazing. I can tell exactly. And if I piss in a pint glass I can fill it to the brim every time. Try pissing in a pint glass.
IDLER: People are brought up to feel guilty about going out a lot and drinking.
HIRST: My Mum brought me up to believe that if you look after the pennies then the pounds look after themselves, and I could never do it. I think if you ignore the pennies then the pounds will look after themselves … if you ignore the pounds, you have a possibility of one in a million of making millions. I always ignore money. It’s to do with spending or saving, isn’t it? I think if one and one can equal three … Like you’re doing The Idler and I’ve just met David Bowie, then I think why don’t we get David Bowie in The Idler, and it’s so much more immense than it was before. A lot of people would go, oh he’s my mate and I’m going to keep him for myself. What’s great for you is great for me: he gets a great interview, you get a great interview and I’ve done something for both of you. So that is one and one equals three.
IDLER: We try to be open and go with the flow.
HIRST: I think that’s what I do as an artist. I’ve just had a baby and I’m looking at things for babies. I thought of doing a sculpture called Lambi Loves Snoodle with a pram with a skull in it. And then those walkie talkies you get from Mothercare. So the pram is like communicating with the skull, so they’re looking after each other. But I probably won’t do it. But do you know what I mean? If that stuff comes out then you have to be open to it. The worst thing I can do is make a Damien Hirst. I don’t believe in talent.
IDLER: What people mean when they say someone’s a genius is that they’ve got the confidence to get on with it.
HIRST: Yeah, it’s the confidence to say, fuck off, this is what I do. Lottery.
HIRST: Lottery [pointing at a bloke in pub]. He’s doing the lottery.
IDLER: Er … it’s about the ideas that fly past the window, that’s what you want to grab hold of.
HIRST: I sit in my house and if you walk past I can’t see you because you’re too close to the wall. But I can see you in the windows opposite. So there’s always another function for everything. A window works like a mirror.
IDLER: What’s idleness for you?
HIRST: It’s about minimum effort, maximum effect. And it’s about people who work and play in a way in which you can’t separate one from the other. It’s like when a car is idling. You have the possibility of going somewhere, but you’re not going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything. The energy’s there. I could very easily make shitloads of money. I know exactly how to do it. But I know if I did it, it’s a slow decline into nothing. Whereas if I constantly make an effort to be more than that, to compromise without compromise … that means you really give someone what they want, to give someone else what they want, and get what you want. So in a way, it’s a compromise, but you get so much of what you want that you’re not really compromising.
HOW TO LIVE
IDLER:We’re interested in the question of “how to live”, and in people who arrange their lives so that they have somewhere to go to in the country. It always sounds very posh and aristocratic when you talk about it, but …
HIRST: I’ve done it the other way round though. Most people live in the city and go to the country at the weekend, and that’s posh and aristocratic, but actually to live in the country and come to London when you can’t take it any more is different. But whenever I look at the question of how to live, the answer’s always staring me in the face. I’m already doing it. I go, so that’s how you do it! The answer to how to live, is just live. And I go “oh fuck I’ve been doing that all along”. And I ask myself, what do I want? Well, I want to get up in the morning and not have too many problems. I want to walk around a bit, think a bit, I want to slow down, so if I fucking live in Devon, it’s three hours from London … if my home’s in London I can never relax. I can’t open the window and have a fag without thinking, oh shit, my neighbours have seen me with a baby and now they’ve seen me having a fag … there’s always somebody else to think about. And also in Devon there’s nine pubs between where I live and the sea, in a quarter of a mile. I’m gonna get a big horse. And I’m gonna go to the pub on my horse and park it outside and drink, and the horse is gonna know its way home. So the owner can just lie over it, slap it on its arse, and say “take me home”.
IDLER: Much better than a car.
HIRST: It’s fantastic … But the answer to how to live is to stop thinking about it. And just to live. But you’re doing that anyway. However you intellectualise it, you still just live.