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

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era