Learning your ABCs with Damien Hirst

Last night I went to my friend Sam’s launch party for his website prancingthroughlife.com . It was awesome. There was a ‘pin the foam finger on Miley Cyrus’ game, different themed rooms with different music (think ‘hip hop hideout’, ‘pop pod’…), and a wall of guest polaroid selfies with favourite book/film/tv show labels.

I wrote a piece for the website about Damien Hirst, check it out:

Damien-Hirst-ABC-Book-04

“B is for Butterfly”. “D is for Diamond”. “L is for Lamb”; a dead lamb, sliced in half and suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. He’s done it, the standout renegade of the rebellious Young British Artists, Damien Hirst has created an ABC-book. Yes, a book for children. Why? Because he could. Because people probably told him he shouldn’t. It’s the sort of news that makes you splutter into your flat white.

Picture the scene: yummy-mummies everywhere settling down for bedtime with Allegra and Archibald. All tucked up and ready for a story, mummy is teaching the alphabet with help from uncle Damien, the man who (obvs) first comes to mind when you think ‘role-model’. They get to ‘C’, ‘C for Cow’, when Archibald asks where the other half of the unfortunate animal is. Don’t worry though kids, because lovely uncle Damien has ensured that the book is printed in “child-friendly soya-bean ink”.

Damien Hirst has forever attracted the adjectives ‘lurid’, ‘sensational’, even ‘puerile’. Famed for pickling sharks, hypothetical plagiarism and being really shit at painting, this is a man who always provokes a reaction; his decision to make something as ‘mainstream’ as a kids book might be a little surprising. But I guess that’s the point. This latest, utterly banal output still has the shock factor of a gaping shark. Not because the book is in any way interesting, but because you keep asking yourself, is he joking?

Because, if the book is a joke, it’s actually an interesting ‘Objet d’Art’. Its black humour is just like the strand of comedy that tied together his repertoire at his retrospective in the Tate last year. For kids, the “J is for Jaws” page might just be a ‘scary shark’, but the image is taken from Hirst’s work ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’; it’s a piece about confronting our own mortality. Maybe his book is trying to be like a Roald Dahl story: simultaneously blithely entertaining the kids while posing ‘life’s greatest questions’ to their parents.

But does Damien Hirst even GET Damien Hirst? People spend a lot of time trying to figure out his work or to spin a web of conceptual significance from it. The artist said last summer on Desert Island Disks that he enjoys “laying eggs in people’s minds”. And ‘eggs’ is the critical word; his pieces are half-formed ideas, semi-jokes that the public discuss over coffee and ardently debate in gastro-pubs all over the country. I hate myself for even writing this article; I’m adding my voice to the conversation that defines Damien Hirst as the Andy Warhol of Generation X.

There’s a story that Damien Hirst once signed an autograph with a drawing of a steaming pile of turd; the caption was just “I draw this shit, people pay me for it”. The napkin was valued at 10,000 pounds. This latest output is much the same, utterly childish but with Hirst’s signature on the bottom, it’s instantly worth discussing.  Maybe he’s finally found his target audience; hopefully the kid’s section of the bookstore is where he’ll remain.

Grayson Perry, who famously hates Damien Hirst, is being broadcast giving his Reith Lectures on BBC radio 4 on Tuesday. Hopefully he’ll have something to say about this latest installment. Watch this space.

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