Itís hard to decide which, in retrospect, was my most embarrassing mistake during the high-glamour party thrown in honor of Damien Hirstís "Requiem," the exhibition that opened at Ukrainian steel billionaire Victor Pinchukís Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev on Friday, Apr. 24, 2009. †
Was it when I barreled over to a man who my brain usually knows as Frank "The Rottweiler" Dunphy -- Hirstís financial manager, father-figure and confidante -- but who on Friday had somehow transmogrified (for me alone) into the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney? When he arrived, I steamed over -- my eyes glistening, my heart palpitating -- saying "Seamus Heaney! What on earth are you doing in the Ukraine? Where have you come from. . . London?. . . Ireland? I didnít know you were a fan of Damienís work. Do you remember we met at the British Library and both tripped backwards into a pot plant? I was writing for the Sunday Telegraph and we were talking about your favorite Czech poet. . . ." Frank smiled politely and mumbled, "Ah yes, the Telegraph," before moving swiftly in another direction.
Or was it later on -- after he had kindly pretended for a long while to go along with my mistake and actually be the Nobel-Prize winning poet -- when I introduced him to the artist Mat Collishaw and numerous other close friends of both Damien and himself as "the poet Seamus Heaney"?
Itís hard to decide.
Either way, Collishaw dragged me off while hissing in my ear, "You mixed them up because theyíre both Irish but they look nothing like each other. You are totally insane." I begged to differ; they look identical. On the journey up the stairs to the roof garden, I just talked loudly over these Collishawian accusations of insanity, so as to blot out my (relative) shame.
We were in Kievís Puppet Theatre, a Soviet-style pseudo-Baroque mansion perched on the top of a sparsely forested hill in the middle of this boiling hot east European city. The buildingís faÁade was illuminated with shocking-pink and mauve up-lighters that gave it the air of a high-rolling but slightly lonely Las Vegas casino.
Hundreds of us were being treated to a spangling and exciting party that included a rollicking Ukrainian band, and, more surreally, an hour-long seated concert -- a homage to Damien -- that was devoid of any irony but full, instead, of adoration for the most expensive artist on the planet.
A representative of the Pinchuk Foundation (the oligarchís charitable wing) took the microphone to tell us these following, and deeply intense things: "With your inner eye, in a few moments, you will still see Damienís wonderful exhibition -- the strong battle about life and death, showing what it means to be an artist, always going for the maximum risk to mark deep footprints on the history of art. Joseph Brodsky, when receiving his Nobel Prize, said that you can share with others a bed, a house, even a woman, but not a work of art. It belongs only to you; a tÍte-ŗ-tÍte relationship which stays forever. An individualís relationship to real art is like a love song; like our love for Damienís art. Prokofiev will now be interpreted for the next 30 minutes by our guest artists."
You could almost taste the bewilderment emanating from the British part of the audience -- more accustomed, as we are, to mincing around drunk at private views before sloping off, unadventurously, to the Groucho.
We band of hapless non-Ukrainians sat in stunned silence as a procession of performers came on stage to a backdrop of large Hirstian images: of Damien in the studio, of Damienís new photorealist paintings, of Damienís very first painting of a skull. Two identical teenage boy-twins with long hair and strong eyebrows efficiently churned out the Prokofiev on their clarinets; the 15-strong all-woman National Choir opened their lungs to sing about their country. Then a seven-year-old girl in a pink dress -- hand on chest to underline the depth of feeling -- sang her heart out in front of the hyper-real images of Damien in hospital scrubs, holding his new-born child.
Victor Pinchuk -- who is now, Iím told, the worldís leading collector of contemporary art and has allegedly spent more than Ä100,000,000 on Hirstís art alone -- stood to give a speech, which recommended his friend Hirst to the world, and thanked him for being a pal. Most importantly though, for the Ukraine, was information about the funding of a clinic for premature babies that the two men had opened two days earlier. Pinchuk told us that Damien had donated £300,000 to the charity, after selling the work Dark Days (2008) at Sothebyís London on Feb. 5, 2009. The clinic is part of the Pinchuk Foundationís Cradles of Hope program that provides aid to newborns in Ukraine. "Yesterday, the first babyís life was saved," he said, to the hushed auditorium.
The little girl in the pink dress was brought back to sing Ave Maria. It was all very, very strange, but then, itís perhaps facile and pretentious to take a stab at sentimental expressions of optimism. Watching the Surreal Lite concert was actually far more interesting than standing around getting drunk. Damienís middle child had taken sick, so he couldnít be at the ceremony to listen to the raft of compliments.
Over 70 friends, family members and associates of Hirst had flown in from around the world to see the 104 works (dating from 1990 to 2008) that he and Pinchuk have assembled over five floors of this rather unassuming gallery. The Moscow Garageís Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst and Dasha Zhukova, the Haunch of Venison director Harry Blain, Phillips de Puryís Ivgenia Naiman, Paul Simenon (once in the Clash), Damienís magnanimous dentist and friend Ralph Palmer-Gilhooly, Damienís lovely mum Mary, Damienís partner Maia Norman with their three children, and the two Sirs -- Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota -- were all there.
Kiev and Moscow were represented by, among many others, the celebrated Moscow art critic Katya Degot, and the Ukrainian gallerists Natasha Sheiko and Ludmila Bereznitsky.
Earlier in the week, Iíd been to the grand opening -- attended by about 400 people and 25 TV cameras -- of the new premises of the gazelle-like Ms. Sheikoís Tsekh Gallery, in an area that reminded me of early Shoreditch days, when all the galleries schlepped out there from the West End. Aleksei Saiís large-scale prints were made using Microsoftís Excel program. Pedestrian as this may sound, the artist had alchemized his computer fumblings into beautiful, futuristic cityscapes or mountain scenes. Sai's images worked equally well across the big gallery space, when the innumerable bits of detail pull together into images of office blocks, and close up, when there is endless fascination in the seemingly random contents -- words, patterns, colors -- of each Excel "cell." "Basically, it all started as a joke," Sai told me, of this series. Well, the joke somehow paid off.
Back to "Requiem," and outside the PAC opening, at 7 pm, Damien was being filmed by Ukrainian TV. He shouted to the people that had gathered at the security barriers; "You might like it, you might hate it. Either way. . . Come on down!", as if, for a moment, channeling the spirit of our dear-departed Leslie Crowther, former host of the UK version of The Price Is Right.
This was an unusual choice of venue for such a potentially significant retrospective, but the strength of friendship between these two self-made men is so palpable that I was under the impression Damien couldnít care less that the location has proven a little unwieldy for such an enormous body of work. A less charitable take on things would be that he was hesitant about the British reaction to his having a retrospective at the tender age of 43.
The Centre is sandwiched in between two other office blocks, and is itself, essentially, an office block, with a narrow, unglamorous staircase as entrance. An annex-pavilion had been built around the corner, for the five month duration of the show, to house two major shark installations -- Death Explained and Death Denied -- and four giant prints of mutating cancer cells, covered with trademark Hirst scalpel blades and glass, stuck on with resin.
Death Denied is essentially a box-fresh remake of the shark in formaldehyde sculpture that made Hirst (and Charles Saatchi) famous, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Death Explained is a shark sliced in half lengthwise and placed in two separate cases through which you can walk in order to get an uncomfortably full-power view of the big fishís loose and offal-y insides.
On the sixth floor of the PAC, at the champagne reception prior to the Puppet Theatre party, I spoke about the show to Hugh Allen, Damienís business partner and the director of the publishing wing of the Hirst empire, Other Criteria. He said it had taken just over seven weeks to get everything into the building. I later mentioned this to Norman Rosenthal (the former head of the Royal Academy). "Not my problem," he hooted, and stalked away.
Artistic director of the Pinchuk Art Centre, Peter Doroshenko, pointed out that -- as the retrospective grew to include nearly all of the Hirst works owned by Pinchuk, and about 50 loans -- many walls had been demolished, and the space extended upwards and significantly reconfigured, in order to squeeze everything in. "It started off as a multi-curated project but it very quickly became Victor and Damienís baby," he said. The official line on PACíS press release however, is that the show was curated by Eckhard Schneider with the close collaboration of Hirst and Pinchuk.
Interestingly, Doroshenko also said that Damien had told him that, from now on, heíll stick to either painting or sculpture, and that he "no longer wants to mix the two practices." This seems to be partially borne out by Hirstís statements to Bloomberg.com earlier in the week, where he claimed that he wants to concentrate on making more of his recent photorealist paintings. But then, there, he also says that he wants to make bronze meteorites the size of cars, so nothingís set in stone (or indeed bronze), as yet. Doroshenko -- a veritable fountain of knowledge -- said as well that Damien was happy with having two retrospectives: one when heís alive, and another when heís dead.
Earlier that day I was told that Doroshenko had introduced the pair to each other about four years ago, in Hirstís British studio. "Legend has it that they met when Damien was cutting a shark in half. It took nine hours, over which time they seriously bonded a friendship. Pinchuk was mesmerized by his working practice."
There was little, if any, obvious curatorial conceit to "Requiem"; it was very much like a funfair ride through Hirstís oeuvre, but I am not sure the show really suffered because of the absence of a theme. Hirstís work is so recognizable, much of it so shocking and so deliberately positioned to imprint itself at the forefront of your mind, that each piece stands for its self, as if a mini-show all on its own.
I feel equivocal though about the 40 new paintings made between 2006-2008 -- largely of skulls -- that are exhibited here for the first time. Painted on a blue-black ground, they are white skulls, cigarette lighters, ashtrays, knives and lemons that float amid abstract lines and dots. Some of the paintings are framed in silver plate, others are gilded, some are surrounded by heavily carved black wood, so evoking the Dutch Old Masters. They are all the direct product of Hirst himself, not his studio, and they recall Bacon so powerfully that itís almost embarrassing. Maybe this is deliberate, but I just didnít sense any grasp here of an owned and considered language of painting, and so I left these rooms a little deflated.
Many stronger works keep the exhibition buoyant, including most of the kaleidoscopic butterfly and skull-spin paintings, a cow strung up on the ceiling by a purple cloth, its stomach split open so its innards tumble out grotesquely onto a square mirror (titled The Promise of Money), and many works in the trademark display cases, including Here Today, Gone Tomorrow Ė- an energized but melancholic collection of the skeletons of small animals which is, architecturally, a masterpiece.
The PAC had advertised on a chat-room site called LiveJournal for students interested in Hirstís work to come and act as guides for the five-month duration of the show. Over 400 applied for the 25 position. The new docents have been coached by the curators and by Hirst himself, and will continue to be associated with the Centre in the future if they want to be. One of these students, a young man named Alex, took me around the day-time press view on Apr. 23. He was so knowledgeable about the works that he ended up quizzing me on them, as if I were in school. "What are the spot paintings about exactly? What is the significance of the white chair and the cigarettes in The Acquired Inability to Escape Purified?" he asked.
Alex will remember Hirstís approachability and desire to impart as much information as possible during the training, which is nice to hear. Alex kept mentioning that a lot of the butterfly paintings and especially a new painting of flowers -- (done, apparently, after Damienís mum Mary complained to her son, "Why canít you paint something nice?") -- had been inspired by "the butterflies and the flowers of Leeds, where Damien is from." Has Alex ever been to Leeds? I didnít dare ask. Itís a great city; but its citizens are not spending their days batting away the butterflies, while being overwhelmed by the fumes of night-blooming jasmine.
These young guides are going to take visitors around the PAC twice a day for five months. No one will pay a bean to get into the show or to go on the tours. As the Ukrainian economy crumbles, this can only be a welcome thing. On top of this, Damien and his assistants ran a spin-painting workshop over the weekend, after which members of the public could take home their signed-by-Hirst work. Strangely, nobody -- including myself -- that went to the Puppet Theatre party and then on to the Palace Hotel casino into the early hours of Saturday morning, managed to witness these early-afternoon events.
Thereís a glut of works in the show, of shiny display cases containing medical instruments, pills and used cigarette butts. Mat Collishaw, no doubt desperate for a cigarette at time of talking, had this to say about them; "Another staggeringly large collection of works from the man. Funny how the cigarette works are becoming like little mausoleums to that old pastime of smoking. When he first made them it wasn't such an issue, now they have a certain tainted malevolent presence due to their being outlawed in public buildings, almost like exhibits from a crime scene."
Pinchuk, I was told by his gregarious press officer Dennis Kazvan, is planning to move his museum to a facility that will supersede his somewhat cramped premises. That move is clearly -- consciously or subconsciously -Ė a political tactic, a gear-change in the struggle for the integration of Ukraine into Europe.
In the press release for "Requiem," Pinchuk said, "This exhibition is of great significance, but what is most important for me is that the opportunity to see Hirstís new body of work occurs first in Kyiv (Kiev). Damienís exhibition in Kyiv symbolizes the reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship between contemporary Ukrainian culture and that of the rest of the world. They share a common ground."
Backing him up -- perhaps not knowingly -- in his mission to promote the Ukraine, is the aforementioned art dealer Ludmila Bereznitsky of the Bereznitsky Gallery -- based both in Kiev and now in Berlin. (I discovered during this trip that Ludmila means "nice person," which is something I will never forget. Imagine being called Nice Person Jones!).
The day after "Requiem" opened, Ludmila premiered "Household Surrealism," the gloriously weird yet accessible show of the famous Ukrainian artist Ilya Chichkan, a man who turns out to be a real card. Heíll also be one of the two artists representing the Ukraine at this yearís Venice Biennale. Perhaps thatís why I met the British ambassador to the Ukraine, Leigh Turner, at this show. It did have an international feel.
Chichkanís view of animals, and our relationship to them, has a subtle, gentle, humorous but distressing quality, a quality that I donít think Iíve seen or sensed before in art, in that context. His beautifully taxidermied hens sit not on nests but on Lava Lamps, and so seem to lay not eggs but orange psychedelic blobs. He also has an unforgettable painting of an ape-baby human on an animal skin. His work is threatening and peaceful at the same time. Quite a hard fault-line to notice, never mind to perfect.
As if in a dream, or at least as if sent to formally close the circle of the week, a curator from Kievís Collection Gallery approached me at the Chichkan show and asked me if his chauffeur could take me to his gallery to see another important Kiev show. (Why canít this sort of thing happen in London? I donít know how many more times I can get on the Tube without breaking down in a fit of claustrophobic-inspired tears.) "Of Whom Is Hirst Afraid?" is a (rather topical) painting installation by the revered Ukrainian painter Vasyl Tsagalov. Two provocative patchy-wild paintings face each other in the gallery; one is a cowboy-esque figure swaggering about and possibly suffering from a bad case of eczema, the other a rollercoaster-murderous skeleton brandishing a Colt .45 and an obvious personality disorder, who looks unstoppable and not very kind.
Because of time constraints, I was rushed in and out of this exhibition but was definitely taken with it. I must look in to Tsagolov more.
If I may briefly take you back to the roof garden of the Puppet Theatre for Damien Hirstís after-show party, I would like to reveal as well my take on Andreas Gursky. I thought he would be moody and dry (in all the wrong ways), but he turned out to be what you might even call, if you dared, a lamb-chop. About "Requiem," he said, "This show, it has really pushed me forward and inspired me to do more." Was he joking, speaking as someone who is so unbelievably active artistically, and of course, financially successful? Weirdly, I donít think he was; I get the impression thereís little of the arrogant edge to him.†
When he had a show last year at PAC, he got the coolest of German bands to perform at his after-party. "I had Kraftwerk," he said on Friday night, "and Damien had a girl in a pink dress."† Still, this didnít sound as if he was taking the piss.
Kraftwerk, he said, "really want me to do something with them in the Tate soon." You heard it here first. Unless, of course, you heard it somewhere else before.
Then, in walks our current 007, Daniel Craig, surrounded by ten of Pinchuk's bodyguards, one of whom (Alex) had the neck of a Shar-Pei dog. (I say this with the greatest respect, being an aficionado of short-haired dogs and wordless human gentle giants). Craig had flown in especially from New York -- as you do. I donít even think he knows Damien, although I am probably wrong.
I got through the bodyguards to ask if he remembered the Ring Oí Bells, a 15th-century pub that I pretty much grew up in (in the 20th century), in a village called Frodsham, Cheshire, in the northwest of England.
I told Daniel that we both grew up running about the place, as his father Tim was married to my Aunty Shirley, who still owns the pub. Tim's name is still above the door. I said, "You were a fair bit older than me but I remember you eating Sunday lunches there."
"Is the boob room still there?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "And they've added one more picture." "I'll have to go back one day to have a look," said 007. The back room -- or "the Boob Room" -- is a local legend and covered with framed, very-nearly tasteful Ď70s photographs of topless women.
Since that Kiev moment, I have been casting around in my mind for something else to bear out and sum up the slightly outlandish but balmy quality of my week in the former Russian state. Then I discovered the Hatinka restaurant, whose menu did the job. If this doesnít represent the endless series of non-sequiturs, and the surreal, lovely and exciting, nature of this city, I donít know what does. Hereís how the English-language version of the menu was printed, verbatim.
A Bag with Mushrooms and Chicken
Gentle Chicken Liver with Grapefruit
Potato Pancakes with Fried Lard Ė The Dream of Every Ukrainian Man
Chicken Kiev Ė How Not to Love You
Calf in Apples
Pieces of Rabbit in Sauce
Pike-Perch Filled Under the Fur-Coat
The Best Piece of Catfish Under the White Night Sauce
Salmon Makivka Ė Try Without Fail
Thatís it: the Ukraine - so obviously the place for me.
LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Saatchi Magazine and artforum.com.