Damien Hirst’s private collection elicits a sense of déjà vu. Has he lost his cutting edge, asks Waldemar Januszczak
Hirst has never been one of those artists who sees his role as making art. Of course, making art is part of it. But even the most casual perusal of his career finds him having a go at so many other things. He’s been a restaurateur, a decorator, a film-maker, a curator, a publisher, a property developer and, most recently, a multimillionaire. And wasn’t that him a few years back, mouthing the words to that catchy chart-topping football ditty, Vindaloo, with Fat Les? Yes, it was.
Since we generally prefer our artists to be single-minded, and would, I guess, trust them more that way, this unusual busyness of Hirst’s can trigger our flibbertigibbet alarm. Get back in the studio, Damien, we chorus, and make some art. But what if having a finger in many pies has replaced the long, lone slog as the most productive approach for a modern creative? What if refusing to settle is the new way of going forwards? If multiskilling is the future — and I am sure it is — then Hirst realised it long before the rest of us.
Apart from his films, which are spectacularly bad, his various departures have generally been worth the effort. His restaurants are fun. His decor is enticing. Vindaloo was a decent football anthem, as football anthems go. And the exhibitions he has curated have been genuinely important, notably Freeze, in 1988, which kick-started Brit Art. So, is collecting another distraction he does particularly well? The Serpentine show certainly proves that Hirst owns lots of exciting things. The busy hang, orchestrated by Hirst himself, crowds the gallery with catchy sights. There’s a Bacon, a Warhol, a Koons. So stuffed is the gallery with cross- generational modern-art goodies that the contents have overflowed onto the grass outside, where they seem to be taking the mickey out of the usual sorts of sculpture you find in London’s parks. Michael Joo’s life-size family of Peter Pan types appear to be relieving themselves on the lawn. Angus Fairhurst’s one-armed gorilla is an amusing Brit Art alternative to those polite dolphins you find on fountains.
Having been perfectly placed to acquire fine examples of the work of his Brit Art contemporaries, Hirst has been particularly astute in vacuuming up the output of Sarah Lucas. He recently bought all the works by her that Charles Saatchi was offloading, and must now be the world’s biggest collector of her art. As Lucas is second only to Hirst himself in terms of Brit Art importance, this greedy gathering of her stuff is a smart bit of acquisition. When it comes to seeing Britishness for what it is, Lucas has no peers. Her gloriously absurd sculpture of a shire horse pulling a cart, inside which are dumped two giant marrows, is a hilarious townie’s gag about Archers Britain that manages both to mock the tastes of rural folk and to celebrate them. But in case we imagine she has gone all Stubbsy on us, and abandoned her usual fascination with the squalid mind-set of the Sun-reading urban bloke, the gallery contains a vandalised BMW, inside which the automated arm of a road yob pumps out the gross one-armed salute that is such a familiar sight on our dual carriageways today.
Lots of the things Hirst owns strike you as a tribute to himself. Stuff with blood in it. Stuff about death. The impressive Steven Gregory gives us a gruesome row of human skulls decorated with beads or slivers of lapis lazuli. The show’s most grisly exhibit, by John Isaacs, seems to show the blubbery, blood-soaked remains of a hunted whale. One of the blobs of blubber still has an eye in it, which looks at you. Creepy.
This fascination with darkness and gore has played a key role, too, in Hirst’s well-heeled pursuit of blue-chip exhibitors. The Warhols he prefers are car crashes and electric chairs, not Marilyns or Elizabeth Taylors. His Bacon is a superbly angry Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion, painted in 1944, which belongs to the same series as that momentous triptych in the Tate, in which a pack of howling monsteroids, half hyena, half human, projectile-vomit their cosmic rage in the vague direction of the crucifixion subject. Bacon’s triptych is one of the Tate’s most famous possessions. I still remember the impact it had on me as schoolboy, and so, surely, does Hirst.
But buying it now for a shedload of money strikes me as an act of nostalgia rather than a display of proactive collecting. When you buy Warhol, Bacon, Koons, you are hardly being a pioneer or an instigator. You’re being a trophy-gatherer. For collecting to be something more than mere accumulation, for the possession of things to add up to a cultural act worth noting and commemorating in an ambitious show, it is necessary for that collection to have a sense of higher purpose, an agenda. Does this selection have one? Not that I could discern. There’s lots of nostalgia discernible in various corners of this surprisingly dated display. In particular, the show kept reminding me of Saatchi’s old gallery at Boundary Road, which Hirst would have known so well and whose aesthetics he seems almost to be quoting. So many of the old Saatchi favourites are here: Sean Landers, Haim Steinbach, Koons, Lucas, Gavin Turk, Marcus Harvey. Looking across at Koons’s neon-lit vacuum cleaners, shimmering so enticingly with urban commodity cool, I suffered a particularly strong attack of déjà vu and was thrust straight back to the wonderful Saatchi show that first unveiled them.
Saatchi, of course, was the man who pioneered modern collecting: he’s the prototype all the other nouveau collectors stoking the art market’s fires to crazy temperatures are attempting to copy. But the difference between Saatchi and Hirst as collectors is that Saatchi actually changed something. When he put his Brit Art holdings on show at the Royal Academy in that notorious Sensation exhibition, he achieved lots of things. He put Brit Art on the international map. He drummed up a huge audience for new art. He annoyed the hell out of large numbers of RAs. Sensation had a powerful cultural impact on many fronts. Hirst’s Murderme collection isn’t in that league. It’s a perfectly pleasant and lively show, but it’s the handiwork of a follower, not a creator. And that is really surprising.