Essay – Damien Hirst I Love You

I thought I would share with you my essay that I wrote at the end of last school year for my course.  We had to write about two works of art by one artist and compare and contrast it.

Damien Hirst – A Comparison of Work

Suzanne Sadler

I have chosen Damien Hirst as the subject of this essay as I have been in awe of him and his work since I can remember.  Damien was born in Bristol in 1965 and went on to become a student at Goldsmiths on their Fine Art course.  From there he became part of the YBA’s or Young British Artists (a phrase coined in 1996 in an article in Art Monthly).  The YBA’s are a group of students, mainly ones who graduated from Goldsmiths Fine Art course in the late 1980’s.  They include artists such as Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing and Ian Davenpoint.  Whilst still a student at Goldsmiths, Damien helped to organise an exhibition called Freeze (July 1988),  which ‘brought together a group of young artists who would come to define cutting-edge contemporary art in the 1990s.’ (  Damien’s own contribution, a stack of cardboard boxes painted with household paints, featured alongside other students work such as Mat Collishaw, Ian Davenport, Gary Hume, Richard Patterson and Fiona Rae.  Charles Saatchi viewed the exhibition and became one of the major contemporary collectors of Damien’s work, helping Damien with sponsorship for another exhibition – Modern Medicine in 1990.  In 1991 Damien put on his first solo exhibition “In and Out of Love” and has had his work exhibited in the Tate Modern and Gagosian to name but a few.  The YBA’s are known for exhibiting their work in factories and empty warehouses, the artwork being cutting-edge, using “shock tactics” to convey the ideas surrounding their work which makes them memorable and the varied materials used in their works, often materials that can be classed as “throw away” and their ‘couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks of my work’ attitude.   It is this attitude and shock factor that has drawn me to Damien Hirst, much of his works being based on death, his ideas about death and themes surrounding death, e.g., The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone living, which I intend to examine further in this essay.  His work has won him the prestigious award the ‘Turner Prize’ (1995) where his work Mother and Child, Divided was put forward as one of the entries.  In both works mentioned (Mother and Child, Divided and also The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) Damien uses formaldehyde (a substance used in the embalming process) but he also works with other materials such as household paint (in his Spot paintings and spin paintings), butterfly wings (as seen in his  Kaleidoscope VII work), medicine in tablet form (Red Hot Chilli Peppers album cover for I’m With You, 28 Tablets) to surgical equipment (seen in his work End Game).  It is this diverse and also perverse use of materials that keeps him fresh in my mind and his work never ceases to amaze me.  In 2010 Damien was named 12th in Gloucestershire’s top 100 most influential people (, 11th Dec 2010).  Damien was named in the Sunday Times Rich List, making him the richest, British, living artist with a wealth valued at £215 million, not surprising as according to the artist his work ‘For The love Of God’ (a platinum cast, diamond encrusted human skull with real human teeth) sold for a reported £50 million.  It is this work ‘For the Love of God’ and the work ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ that I am going to explore further and compare and contrast.

The first work, I referred to earlier, is “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.  The work was created in 1991 and consisted of a 14ft Tiger Shark suspended in a tank (vitrine), made of glass and steel, full of formaldehyde.  It was funded by Charles Saatchi, who offered to fund any work that Damien wanted to create, obtaining the shark alone cost £6,000 and the cost of the work in total came to £50,000.  It was exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery based at St John’s Wood, London, in 1992 alongside other artist’s works in the Young British Artists show.  The work Damien created has been “considered the iconic work of British art in the 1990s (1), and has become a symbol of Britart worldwide (2).” (, 1) Brooks, Richard. “Hirst’s shark is sold to America”, The Sunday Times, 16 January 2005, 2) Davies, Serena. “Why painting is back in the frame”, The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2005. )  The shark was replaced in 2006 due to the deterioration of the original, assumed to be because of bleach added to the formaldehyde, which sped up the decay process,  when the work was housed at the Saatchi Gallery.  The original shark had also been subject to being removed from the tank, its skin being removed and placed over a fiberglass body and replaced in order to try and slow down the decay.  “Hirst commented, “It didn’t look as frightening … You could tell it wasn’t real. It had no weight.”” (Vogel, Carol “Swimming with famous dead sharks, New York Times, 1 October 2006)  As the shark had lost the drama, fear and aggression that the “real” shark had contributed to the work, it was decided that the shark would be replaced with a new one before being sold to Steven Cohen at an undisclosed price, rumoured to be around £8 million dollars in 2004.  Damien spoke with Steven and it was agreed that the fiberglass and skin shark would be replaced with another “real” preserved shark.  Steven agreed to foot the replacement costs and a new shark was purchased.  Another cause for decay was assumed to be the preserving process, the last shark had not been injected with formaldehyde, and it was just placed within the mixture in the tank, which over time became cloudy through decay.  The new shark was, however, injected with solution and also was soaked in a preservative for 2 weeks before being placed into the original vitrine in 2006.  This replacement of the original shark bought up the question from the public, whether the work could still be classed as the same piece of work as a major part of it had been replaced?  Personally, I think that the shark being subject to a taxidermy process back in 1993 and then being totally replaced in 2006 was just an improvement to the work, the process of replacement being along the same lines as a painter adding one final brush-stroke to a masterpiece in order to be totally happy with his work.  I feel that there was nothing wrong with improving the work, after all, who wants to sell a piece of work they, themselves, are not 100% happy with?  I do think that it was unfair of this question to be raised but I do understand that regardless of the path taken, whether Damien left the work as it was or, as he did, replaced the shark, questions and also criticisms would be raised.

The other work I am interested in is one of Damien’s more recent works.  This piece was unveiled in 2007 at the White Cube in London, and is called “For the Love of God”. The work is a platinum cast of a human skull (cast from an 18th-century skull he bought in London. ( The Iceman Cometh By WILLIAM SHAW Published: June 3, 2007)),  and is covered in exactly 8601 FLAWLESS diamonds which includes a pink pear shaped diamond set into the forehead of the sculpture, it also sports real human teeth which have been re-set into the mouth area.  The work cost around £14 million, financed by Damien himself, and was made in response to a question raised by his mother ‘For the Love of God, what are you going to do next?’.  ( The Iceman Cometh by WILLIAM SHAW Published: June 3, 2007).   ‘For the Love of God’ went on sale with an asking price of £50 million and was apparently sold in August 2007, the buyer remained anonymous.

In the February 6, 2012 issue of Time Magazine, Hirst elaborated, in his “10 Questions” interview: “In the end I covered my fabrication and a few other costs by selling a third of it to an investment group, who are anonymous.” The skull cost around £14 million to fabricate. Hirst did not specify the “other” costs, but it seems reasonable to assume they could be around £2 or £3 million. If one third of the skull was sold for £16 – £17 million, then the total value of the piece would be £48 – £51 million. This, presumably, is where the 2007 claim of a £50 million sale price came from.” ( )

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding both of these works, and in fact most, if not all of Damien’s art works (see ).  The inspiration for his work “For the Love of God”, according to Damien, came from a turquoise skull of Aztec origins that is held in the British Museum.  However, John Le Kay, a past friend of Damien, had made claims that his work plagiarised a work that he, himself, had created during their friendship.  The work was called Spiritus Callidus #2 and was made in 1993, 14 years before Damien made his skull.  Le Kay said “”When I heard he was doing it, I felt like I was being punched in the gut. When I saw the image online, I felt that a part of me was in the piece. I was a bit shocked.” ( ,   Alberge, Dalya. “My old friend Damien stole my skull idea”, The Times, 27 June 2007).  The claim of plagiarism has not been taken further or investigated as “LeKay has become more interested in Buddhism than material wealth, so he does not plan to seek compensation.” (, Dalya Alberge, 2nd Dec 2010, The Guardian).

Damien also faced claims of plagiarism for the work “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” which “was inspired by a stuffed shark that hung on the wall of an electrical supply store.”( , Sept 3 2010, Art Info), My problem with these claims is that no artwork is original these days and all artists cite others work, or objects, whether natural or man-made, as inspiration and a starting point for creating work of their own.  From what I have seen of the works created by Damien and the ‘original’ works made by the other artists, there are similarities but the works that Damien has made are improved and Damien has added his own twist to them, for example, the large pink diamond set on the forehead of “For the Love of God”.  Damien was said to be “inspired by memories of the comic ‘2000 AD’, which Hirst used to read as a child. He relates how the comic, “used to have a character in it called Tharg the Mighty who had a circle on his forehead. He was like a kind of powerful, God-like figure who controlled the universe,” Hirst explains. “It kind of just looked like it needed something. A third eye; a connection to Jesus and his dad.””( ).  What I find interesting with Le Kay’s claims is that he doesn’t say where he got his inspiration from when he created his work Spiritus Callidus #2 in 1993.  Damien had said that his work was inspired by a turquoise skull that is held by the British Museum and can be dated back to Aztec times.  It is interesting to note that throughout history there have been many discoveries of jewelled skulls being found.  I find it absurd that Damien can have these claims thrown at him for the skull work when these things have been around for centuries.  As far as I can see, Damien has put his own twist on the skull and has produced a work that is both beautiful to look at, links the modern with ancient times and has a thought process put into it that is personal to Damien.

It is also a ridiculous notion that the piece “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” can be a copy of a stuffed fish on show in an electrical store.  I think that the problem with this work is that it isn’t about whether it was or was not copied but what is defined as art.  The process that Damien took the Tiger Sharks body through to preserve it and his willingness to replace the shark when it started to deteriorate through decay surely says something about the work?  Would the stuffed fish on show in that electrical store have so much attention paid to it and be replaced when decay set in?  I think not.  There is also the issue of meaning behind the work, the electrical store fish was just that, a stuffed fish.  Damien has attached meaning to his work, it gets the viewer to confront fears and face their own mortality.

The fact that these works have similarities and parallel’s to other artists work or produced items should not really say anything about plagiarism.  Damien’s work has similarities to the other work but can we honestly say that any idea, work, music or any created thing is original?  In music certain riffs have been used over and over and it has been said that there is only a certain combination of notes that can be produced and put together before you run out of original combinations, sometimes the only thing making one riff different to another is the pitch or speed in which they are combined, can this not be applied to art?  With pitch and speed being the artists own interpretation and meanings placed onto the items produced?  I have looked at other works of Damien’s and can understand where the idea of plagiarism arises and in some cases Damien has paid undisclosed amounts to persons in settlement of these claims, (It emerged in 2000 that Hirst agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to head off legal action for breach of copyright by the designer and makers of a £14.99 toy which bore a resemblance to his celebrated 20ft bronze sculpture, Hymn.

(, which to me suggests that he may have been guilty of the claims against him, but, on the other hand it could have been because Damien didn’t want to go up against a large company in court.

Whatever claims have been made about Damien’s work and the similarities between his work and other artist’s work, the fact that Damien created these works and became famous because of them should not matter.  All artists use others work and ideas as inspiration for pieces that they create, they also use news stories and nature, all manner of things when thinking about what to create.  The only mistake Damien has made is not giving reference to the other pieces of work as a source of inspiration.  As an artist myself, I understand how frustrating it can be when ideas that you have had are taken and used by someone else (and sometimes made even better) but in this industry where no idea or thought is completely “original” we must accept that this will happen and we are as guilty of the next person of plagiarism of work.  The only way around this is to give appropriate praise and reference to works we have been inspired by whether it is a sculpture, a painting, an idea, a book, whatever it is that has given us the stepping stones to create our work.  I for one do not despair of Damien’s apparent “copying” of work and will forever be one of his fans.  Damien Hirst, I love you.


The 20th Century art Book (pg 204)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s