The Physical Impossibility of Life in the Mind of Someone Obessed with Death

Hirst and Weiwei: similar methods, opposing messages.

The fly is a bullet so black that for a second I think it's swooping right at my face. A blink and I realise it to be safely within the tank. I watch it flurry at the glass, then look beyond to the grizzled cow head, which lies on the floor crowned by a droning cloud of flies. This is a replica of A Thousand Years, which is being exhibited in the Tate Modern as part of its Damien Hirst retrospective. Despite the gruesome sight, it’s the alarming smell of rot that haunts me as I leave, and, upon reaching the Turbine Hall, I'm thankful for the clean air. The space currently rings with the rush of Tino Sehgal’s live commission, but were I walking here a year and a half ago my footsteps would be serenely crunching over what, at a first glance, might appear to be a pebble beach. In reality, this "pebble beach" was actually a carpet of 100 million individually-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which acted as reminder of the value and idiosyncrasy of the individual amidst the homogeneity of China’s society of mass-production.

Hirst and Weiwei. Weiwei and Hirst. Despite their differences, there are many parallels to be drawn between the two artists. As well as exhibiting in the Tate within a year of each other, both are arguably the most internationally famous, and controversial, conceptual artists to have emerged from their respective countries. Both tend to have little involvement in the actualisation their ideas, instead preferring to employ workshops of artists. (Though it is worth noting that whilst Hirst infamously describes his own efforts as “shite”, Weiwei is known as an extremely capable craftsman.) Both facilitate ready-made objects (for Weiwei, pieces such as Table with Two Legs on the Wall, and for Hirst his Pharmacy series) and flirt with destruction (Hirst's The Natural History series, Weiwei's Dropping the Urn), perhaps as an off-shoot of their shared desire to shock. Most importantly, however, both are talented facilitators. Hirst is credited with bringing "BritArt" to the notice of the international art community and his rise to fame is largely attributable to his curation of degree shows such as Freeze in 1988. Weiwei, meanwhile, played a crucial role in establishing an underground Chinese art scene during the period of suppression that followed the Tiananmen Square protests and is currently lauded for his tireless activist social networking. Yet it is here that the two men part company, for the essence of their work is radically different, if not diametrically opposed.

I'm reminded of Hirst’s In and Out of Love in which butterflies hatch, feed and mate in a frenzy of life that is intended as a contrast to his paintings of collaged butterfly wings. In its replication for his retrospective I did indeed find hope as I stood in the humid room, willing colourful wings to chose me as a perch. But as soon as one did a steward plucked it away, it wings clamped between her index and middle fingers like she might a cigarette. At the table where she deposited it, three other stewards were bent over a bowl of fruit. “They’re looking a little insubstantial now.” One of them remarked. And she was right. At her words I saw that the browning flesh of a banana was studded with pieces of wing-shrapnel, which could have been jigsawed into the tatters of a butterfly that twitched atop an emaciated orange. Death even sharpens his scythe on Hirst’s Pharmacy installations. Of the pills that others would perceive as curative, Hirst says “you can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway.” Through these pieces and his unholy fusion of dichotomies (he claims that “in an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time”) Hirst seems to beckon us into a nihilist descent. Indeed, by the time one exits past a taxidermied dove, it’s hard to shake the feeling that his main message is "why don’t you just lie down and die?"

Yet whilst it is true that the very maggot of our destruction is present at our conception, this cannot invalidate the curious and marvellous state that perseveres between birth and death. Weiwei knows this. In Study of Perspective he quite literally gives the finger to Tiananmen Square, and for Ai's Remembering, a monument to the thousands of school children killed by the Sichuan earthquake, thousands of backpacks spell out the words: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."  Life is invaluable to Weiwei, perhaps all the more so for its finitude, and he sees it as worth fighting for, even if to do so risks an early onset of Hirst’s fly-festered death. Faced with this comparison it’s easy to forget that it is Weiwei, not the death- obsessed Hirst, who faces the constant threat of silencing by a totalitarian regime.

A recent editorial in the Guardian contrasts the idea of "an artist with ‘the responsibility of a preacher’", to Hirst as “perhaps, the artist we deserve”, “purposeless, plutocratic, even pharmaceutical” like “the preoccupations of our age.” Yet the modus operandi works both ways, society shapes art and art shapes society. How else could an artist like Weiwei exist? In Britiain we are lucky enough to have the freedom of expression for which Weiwei risks his life, yet the use we make of our artistic liberties seems almost shameful. Weiwei’s work challenges his oppressive government, Hirst's follows the pack in seeking to dilute the meaning of the word "art". Weiwei hopes to shock the international community into signing petitions, Hirst the rich into signing cheques.

Hirst is, of course, an obvious straw man and there are many exceptions to the trend, yet I still struggle to think of a worthy example of a British practitioner who raises important political issues as succinctly, or has had such success in inspiring and motivating non-artists, as Weiwei. Though the Chinese undeniably face greater injustices, it would be laughable to call Britain a utopia. With the reputations of banking, media and politics sullied perhaps irretrievably, there are many scandals to be challenged by galvanising, inspiring art. For regardless of Hirst's missive, we’re not dead yet and some things are worth fighting for.

Damien Hirst poses in front of "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (Photo: Getty Images)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

Show Hide image

With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad