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by Joe La Placa
Standing within a virtually pitch-black exhibition room inside the new White Cube at Masonís Yard, London, I barely notice Damien Hirst is late for our interview.

Itís not because Iím awe-struck about getting a chance to speak with one of the richest and most celebrated artists of our generation. With 25 years of experience of working within the art world, those days are long gone. But standing here, in the inner sanctum of the United Kingdomís most prestigious contemporary gallery, in the heart of Mayfair, epicentre of the booming international art market, gazing at Hirstís For the Love of God -- the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created -- is causing time to stand still.†

The press on Hirstís "Momento Mori" was so tightly controlled before the opening of his new solo exhibition -- appropriately titled "Beyond Belief," June 1-July 7, 2007 -- you would think it was a matter of national security rather than one of the most ambitious exhibitions on this yearís contemporary calendar. When the glittering photos of For the Love of God were released, I was sceptical, particularly given all the pre-show hype. But nothing can prepare you for the effect of seeing this astounding object in person.

Produced by Bentley and Skinner of Bond street over a period of 18 months, Hirstís opus is a platinum cast of a human skull, covered by 8,601 VVS to flawless pave-set diamonds weighing 1,106.18 carats, including an internally flawless light fancy pink brilliant-cut pear-shaped diamond placed in the position of the "third eye" -- at the center of the skullís forehead. Containing three times the number of diamonds in Englandís Imperial State Crown (also made by Bentley and Skinner) the material costs alone are well over £14 million. "He bought so many diamonds, the world market went up around 15%," said one Hatton Garden diamond dealer.

When Hirst finally does arrive in a chauffeur-driven silver Mercedes 5 series with tinted windows, he is immediately inundated by White Cube staff and security guards, dressed in tailored black suits, armed with walkie-talkies, concealed ear pieces and conspicuous-looking bulges in their breast pockets. Clearly no chances being taken here, given the £50 million price tag of For the Love of God. All the clamour and security creates the mood of a popular thriller -- a successful robbery would be the greatest heist story since the Mona Lisa was snatched from the walls of the Louvre in 1911.

Since "Beyond Belief" opened a little more than a week ago, thereís been a barrage of international press, something Hirst considers to be one of his greatest works of art -- an observation which caused consternation in the press and public alike. Not afraid of going against the grain, Hirst speaks his mind, where others cower and compromise.

Everyone has an opinion about Hirst and his work. But oddly, thereís been a conspicuous lack of published interviews or direct quotes in the acres of column inches on his recent show. It is for this reason that I offer our excerpts of our conversation, to let Hirst speak for himself about his work and state of todayís art market.†

Our conversation starts at the new White Cube in Masonís Yard, in the downstairs gallery. Wearing jeans and a Libertine shirt with a print of a devil on the side, Hirst is warm and friendly, often answering my questions in rapid-fire, run-on sentences, reminding me of Jack Kerouac with a northern English accent.

Joe La Placa: What motivated you to make For the Love of God ?†

Damien Hirst: Iíve always loved skulls. Iím kind of extreme. I always look for how far I can go, where the end is. Skulls are great; theyíre everywhere at the moment. Theyíre in everything. Theyíve become like a logo, like being in Mexico on the Day of Dead.

I started thinking how here in England, or the Western world for that matter, weíre obsessed with skulls. We avoid confronting death. So it just seemed really weird that we love the image of the skull and worship it and celebrate it and put it on scarves like Alexander McQueen. You see more skulls in England than you do in Mexico, and yet superficially, Mexicans seem to walk hand-in-hand with death, whereas we sweep it under the carpet. . . .

JLP: Or give it a face lift!

DH: I thought: Why is that? How come weíve sort of embraced the image of the skull? Whatís the most you can really throw at death? What can you pit against it? Wealth? Money? Art? Power? I thought about diamonds being forever. . . How diamond mines are sending the little guys down holes to get the stones and paying them nothing. . . and people killing each other for them.

JLP: I see this skull as a cautionary tale, death veneered in precious stones people actually kill each other for.†

DH: I think that anything great has that attached to it -- you get factions. You get those for, you get those against; you get hate, you get the love; you get the beauty and you get the horror. Thatís great.

But wealth, you know, doesnít last long. But itís what people want. Iím in a lucky position where I can afford to make something of this scale, so I thought, fuck it, Iíll go for it.†

We descend to the lower floor gallery to look at Death Explained, a recent evolution on Hirstís iconic The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a menacing shark floating in a nightmarish cloud of formaldehyde solution. In Death Explained however, the shark is cut down the middle with laser-like precision. Each half is individually encased in a separate vitrine, with just enough space to walk in between them, allowing the viewer to walk through the sharkís interior.

JLP: Why cut the shark in half?

DH: I think we cut everything in half, donít we?

JLP: Expose the guts, the inside?

DH: When you look through a microscope, you often have to kill what youíre looking at. When you cut something like that, itís to show the inside. And you look at it and think: Ah! Thatís how it works! But it doesnít work, because you cut it in half.

Lining the two opposite walls of the downstairs gallery are Hirstís series of "Biopsy Paintings." The 30 titles read like a medical text: M122/388 Pagetís disease of the Breast,light_micrograph_SPL.jpg is one example. The works are composed of photographs of various forms of cancer and terminal illnesses sourced from the Science photo library. The images are photographed through a microscope, blown-up and silk-screened onto canvas. Hundreds of surgical blades have been sprinkled onto the canvas along with broken glass and hair, all menacingly trapped in clear resin.

JLP: Why the scalpels, glass and hair?†

DH: Pain. . . . When I was a kid I used to hang out in a car garage. There were lots of crashed cars, and Iíd make stuff. Iíd find broken glass and blood on some of the things, and hair.

JLP: Do you feel any less anxiety about dying, now that youíve immortalized yourself by making For the Love of God?

DH: I donít know if anxietyís a good word to describe how you feel about dying. I mean, itís a mixture of emotions. Every day Iíve woken up, every time I think about it, it changes and you adapt and you donít get any wiser. But it just gets kind of more encroaching. Thereís a great poem by Phillip Larkin that I like called Aubade, which is brilliant. Itís really about insomnia, but itís about dying as well. Itís very, very good. It basically says if you think about death long enough, you just canít function.

JLP: From an Eastern point of view however, the contemplation of death or what they call impermanence, is one of the main activities of Buddhist thought.

DH: I donít believe in all that. I donít believe it works.

JLP: No?

DH: No, I donít believe that you get any wiser. I think thatís just a myth. Buddhism is just like having a big yacht where youíve got other people in bigger yachts parking next to you. And then they keep talking about this huge imaginary yacht that everyone can get -- but they never get it. Lifeís rotten on a lot of levels.

JLP: Life is suffering. . .

DH: Yeah, life is definitely suffering. I think you can hum and chant as long as you like but, at the end of the day, some fucking big Naziís going to walk in and stick a bayonet through your heart. . . and fuck your girlfriend!

Contrary to the rest of the gallery, the ground floor gallery is full of life. Hirstís "Birth Paintings" are based on photographic images of the artistís youngest son Cyrus, born by Caesarean section in August 2005. They are both brutal in their frank depiction of birth and tender at the same time, the gesture of a loving father immortalising his young son.

JLP: So, needless to say, you donít believe in reincarnation or anything of the sort?

DH: No, I donít. I believe in Art as a kind of spiritual thing really, or a religious thing. I really believe that! To watch a baby being born is to believe in miracles.

Life is amazing. But I donít believe in any of that voodoo, supernatural shite. I believe in fortuity. Weíre all a part of everything so if you act in the right way, you can generate these great moments, where great things happen. Great art can be made -- or just a great party. When you put all the right ingredients together in the right way, then things go your way. And if you work against it, things go badly. But thatís about it for me.

As we continue our walk through the downstairs gallery, more and more visitors begin to trail behind us, straining their ears to hear what Hirst is saying. One of the bolder visitors, a young female art student, is carrying a plaster cast of a cross section of a head. Desperate to get an autograph, she rudely interrupts the interview, begging Hirst to sign the cast. Despite the annoyance, he does so good-naturedly. But with the crowd now gathering like a storm, itís time to move to Jay Joplingís private office upstairs.

At the time of writing this article, no less than six potential clients were competing to purchase For the Love of God. One client, wishing to remain anonymous, if successful in purchasing the piece, had already organized a two year tour, calculating heíd make a large percentage of the purchase price back from exhibition fees.

JLP: For The Love of God has a huge sale price of $100 million. . .

DH: Itís too cheap! People really want it.

JLP: £50 million is too cheap?

DH: Definitely! If the Crown Jewels were on the market, theyíd sell for a hell of a lot more than that. Itís just one of those objects.

JLP: Yes, but in relation to what other contemporary art has sold for, this is over the top, particularly for a living artist.

DH: Not really. What do you mean, living artist? Thatís a bit of a fucking red herring really, isnít it, a living artist? I mean, art lasts for thousands of years; itís been going on for thousands of years and a humanís lifetime is less than a hundred years. There are only a few artists alive, relatively speaking. And the art market is, what, 2000 years old and beyond, of artistic activity? You need to forget about the living artist and just talk about art.†

When I got into the art world, I consciously wanted to change it. I found it really annoying because it seemed like a kind of club where people would sell cheaply to investors and theyíd make the money. Collectors would take the art off the artists and, because they came in early and they gave the artist a little bit of money, later, when the artwork got resold, it would be the collector who made the big money in the secondary market. And I always thought that was fucking wrong. Iím the artist, the primary market. And I want the money to be in the primary market.†

Iíve always said itís like going into Prada and buying a coat for two quid and then selling it next door a charity shop for 200 quid. Itís totally fucking wrong! Why are they doing it that way round? Art should be expensive the first time around. There shouldnít be all these old boys making loads of money on the secondary market.†

JLP: So youíre saying itís the artists who should make the lionís share of the money, not the dealers or collectors?

DH: Right. We should have learned from what happened to Van Gogh. Art has a kind of value now! People fall for that old fucking vintage trick, donít they?†"Oh, itís a vintage antique, so it must be expensive." But thatís another priority. When you go in someoneís house and see a painting on the wall, a new painting should be much more exciting than an old painting. . . and that should be where the money is spent.

JLP: Last Friday, I spoke on a panel at the London School of Business. The topic was "Art as a Asset Class." Basically, lots of banks and wealth managers are looking to invest more and more in art, but find it difficult to do so because financial transactions in the galleries, which currently represent an estimated 65% of the world turnover of Fine Art, are so reluctant to report sale prices. Itís typical to go into a gallery, ask the dealer about the price of a major work, and basically be told none of your business!

DH: Thatís because theyíre all bullshitting. I remember asking one dealer I used to work with, "Why canít we sell this piece more expensively?" And they said, "Well, youíve got to allow the people buying it to make a little bit of money." And I said "Fuck that!" If theyíre buying it to make money, they shouldnít be buying it at all. They should be buying it to put on the wall. I donít want to sell to people so they can make money!

Another time, I went into a gallery after a boozy lunch and tried to buy a painting. And they said, "Who are you?" And Iím like, "Fuck who I am, I want to buy a painting!" The problem is you canít buy things until they find out who you are because the price depends on how much money youíve got, which is archaic.†

JLP: For the moment, thatís right. But the art marketís heading towards a more transparent state, something Artnet has advocated for years. Proof of this increased transparency can be seen by the dramatic increase in turnover by the public auction houses like Christieís, whose European turnover alone increased over 40% last year, the highest in the companyís history.

DH: I think art will always be a great fucking investment. Itís the most powerful currency in the world, the best thing you could spend your money on.

And like the great quote says: There are no pockets in a shroud. You canít take it with you after you die. But what you can do is build a museum, put the paintings inside and call it the Sainsbury wing. So in a way, buying art guarantees you immortality. . . . If thatís what you want; thereís no other way of doing it.†

JLP: In the Ď80s, when I worked with the graffiti writers, despite painting on canvas, they continued to paint on subway cars because they were able to take their paintings from one place to another and expose them to three million people a day.

DH: I think thatís good. I much prefer to exhibit in contemporary galleries than in museums because itís more alive and it gets out there and people buy it. I like the commerce of it. I like the fact that the art changes hands and moves around and just feels alive. But once you get art into a museum, it starts to die.

I recently refused to do an exhibition because they wanted to charge people money to go and see it. I always want my shows to have free admission. If you open free shows to the public, then you can sort of justify the big prices in some way because youíre not earning any revenue from ticket sales, for example. Also, if you start charging people an entrance fee, lots of people wonít be able to afford to see the show. No, I donít like museums you have to pay for.

JLP: Given your resources though, like your organization Science, which has 125 people on the payroll, you could probably rent some incredible place and open your own gallery, if you wanted to.

DH: Well, I was thinking about that. But although I like selling art, I donít like physically having to sell it.

JLP: I donít mean you personally -- you have people in Science that could do it for you.

DH: Yeah, but I like galleries, particularly the oneís I work with. I think theyíre cool. That said, weíve got plans for opening a gallery in Lambeth with my company Other Criteria. Although itíll be a gallery, itís more a place where we can play, really. We want to be able to show things we donít have to sell.†

JLP: I always thought Other Criteria was your publishing arm. . .

DH: It is, but itís now going to have a gallery attached as well, the Criteria Gallery. I might do a show there every few years, but weíll also invite curators from outside the organisation. I donít want a program. I think thatís what fucks galleries up, when you go in there, say you want to do a show next week, and you see their exhibition program is booked up for the next four years.†

JLP: So the Criteria Gallery will open without a program?

DH: Yeah. Itíll start empty and have a restaurant too.

JLP: So itíll be like an art complex?

DH: Weíve got five buildings. Iíve got some great plans by the architect Caruso St. John, and hopefully, after this show, weíre going to start building.

JLP: What direction will your work go in the future?

DH: You never know where youíre going to go, do you? Youíve just got to keep moving along and try to keep it exciting. Frank Dunphy, my business manager, said to me, "All youíve got to do is make sure that youíre using your†money to chase the art and not your art to chase the money."

JLP: Frank is a wise man!

DH: If youíre just making art for money then itís fucked. But if you use your money to make great art, itís the best thing you can do.

Thereís a lot of pressure though, because you can get bored with what youíre making. And when thereís a big demand, youíve really got to fight through the temptation and get out the other side. People come up to me all the time and say, "I love your early work, have you got any left?" They want the stuff from the past thatís been tried and tested. And thatís another fear, that your old workís great and your new workís shit. So youíve just got to keep going forward.†

When I look at great artists I admire, like Willem De Kooning, I see huge changes in his paintings over the years. Yet everyone thinks heís only an Abstract Expressionist. But De Kooningís got more to do with Soutine. Heís just trying to satisfy himself. There are these major, major changes in his work every three or four years. Thatís what makes him great, what makes him stand and shine out from the rest of them.†

JLP: I believe the natural state of life is change. Going against this idea is whatís caused artists to self-destruct; they keep on making the same thing for money, but they actually want to evolve and change. It leads to self-destruction.†

DH: Bacon is a brilliant example of that level of change Iím speaking about. He was a brilliant painter and I love him. And like him, I just keep trying to push the envelope, to keep going forward.

JLP: Have you been building a big collection?

DH: Iíve slowed down buying a little bit. But I still love collecting. There are some great things out there.

JLP: What type of stuff are you buying now?

DH: Iíve been buying works by Jeff Koons, a couple of Bacons, Richard Prince, Jim Lambie, Sarah Lucas, Matt Collishaw and lots of other people. Iíve even bought a stain painting by Helen Frankenthaler!

JLP: I get the feeling that if you were to be reborn, youíd want to come back as a great painter like Titian.

DH: I do love painting completely, but I donít know if Iíd want to possess the virtuosity of Titian. I mean, I donít need his ability.

JLP: Why? Because someone else can do it for you?

DH: My favourite painters are Goya, Soutine and Bacon. Paintings are about truth and belief; itís not about ability. Ability comes with practice. But belief, truth and guts donít come with anything. You just take whatever ability youíve got and you try and communicate something. And thatís the great thing about painting.

JLP: But isnít the technical virtuosity of a painter important?

DH: If you look at Bacon, then obviously not, because Baconís virtuosity is fucking terrible.

JLP: How so?

DH: What do we mean when we say "Öability to paint?" Do you mean the way that he can depict things? Is it the accuracy of how an artist renders something? Is this virtuosity?†

JLP: In certain cases, yes.

DH: But Baconís got no real ability to render. He was in tears because he couldnít paint like Rembrandt. So he went for the subject instead.† When you look at his work, you can clearly see he didnít go for virtuosity. Heís really trying to get what both Velasquez and Rembrandt have, but with less ability.

JLP: Do you think painting has arrived at a dead-end or is there still room for experimentation and innovation?

DH: I think paintingís brilliant. I think itís the most brilliant thing there is. Itís amazing, because like books, paintings will never go out of style.†

Painting is only recently coming out the arse-end of photography. I think painting was mother-fucked by photography. But thatís been put to bed, so we can all relax. Itís photography thatís getting a hammering now because no-one believes it anymore, particularly since it can be digitalised. People thought photography was real, but thatís wrong. Paintingís real; photographyís fake. For a while there, people just couldnít believe in painting because photography just stood and represented such a real thing.† But not anymore, baby!

JOE LA PLACA is Artnetís chief London representative.