This Tuesday I went to see Damien Hurst’s piece “For the Love of God.” That is the skull with the diamonds on and not the dead animals in fish tanks. The work was held in a little blacked out, guarded room in the Tate.
The piece, if you don’t know, is a real skull, cast in platinum and set with diamonds, loads of them. It cost an estimated 15 million quid for some reason. Hirst has been trying to flog it for 50 million for years.
Although produced by the well respected jewelers Bentley and Skinner, the piece looks like it was knocked together by a country and western singer who felt restrained operating in the medium of denim. It is tacky and nothing more.
The brief description outside the viewing room describes how Hirst sees the piece as a “memento mori” which is an artistic tradition that asks the viewer to question their own mortality. The skull representing death and the diamonds?…. well that was not entirely clear.
There was some mention of luxury juxtaposing with image of death or some such twaddle. Really, I got the feeling he just wanted to put some diamonds on a skull and kind of worked out some accompanying bumf to go with it. As a memento mori and as a piece of art it failed on almost every level for me.
It was tacky to the extreme. It certainly would not look out of place on the top of a pimp’s cane or maybe as P-Didie’s gear stick. The object was so far removed from being a skull that it had absolutely no resonance with my own sense of mortality. the diamonds sparkle nicely, but that is because they are diamonds and that is what they do.
The fact that Hirst did not make the piece and pretty much stole the idea from an earlier work by John Lekay is by-the-by. I was unmoved by this piece and that is all that counts for me personally. Could there be an argument that the media storm produced is what the piece was actually about? Maybe, but isn’t that a little cliched. Duchamp, Dali and Warhol, to name but a few, all manipulated media attention, its old fucking hat. We live a world that a cat playing a keyboard can gain worldwide fame overnight. Media manipulation is so passe that there is nothing more to be said here.
It was not until later that day did I see a piece that had a real impact and one that, in a sense, functioned powerfully as a memento mori. The piece was a euthanasia machine from Australia, back when it was legal (1994 – 1997 I believe). The machine in question had taken the lives of four people in its working history.
It works by administering a lethal injection once a patient has answered the prompts on the screen. Several of these prompts must be confirmed before the machine will administer the poison. It kind of reminded me of the prompts on windows: “Are you sure you want to quit?” “Really? Last chance.”
Despite the image of the windows paperclip, cheerfully talking someone through the last stages of suicide, the object was incredibly powerful. Here was an actual interface where someone was facing and taking charge of their own mortality. This object was the gateway four people took to take their own lives.
Were they left on their own with the machine? Did someone come into the room afterwards to collect it and phone the morticians?
The machine achieved in its own understated way what a human skull and a bucket load of diamonds couldn’t, it caused me to examine my own mortality. Truly great curating.