Dig a Little Deeper:
A Comparative Analysis of Damien Hirst and Petah Coyne
The works of both Damien Hirst and Petah Coyne synthesize two central forces: making an aesthetically pleasing display, and exploring the deeper profundities of life and death. The two share an unflinching honesty about how interlocking beauty, terror, and decay can be. By weaving these themes together in different ways, in different art works, and with different voices, these two artists each touch upon fundamental human responses to mortality, in all its many forms.
The work of Damien Hirst begs to be judged, in a way. The scale of the pieces, the uncomfortable subject matter, the garish piece titles, the marketing stunts, and the audacity to go over the heads of his representing galleries in lieu of an all-Hirst auction with Sotheby’s, all point to a self-centered grandiosity. This grandiosity is on the one hand quite repulsive, but on the other hand, quite intoxicating. He is a rock star of the art-world, and as stereotypes go, one would think that he was entirely superficial. However, to dig a little deeper into the thought processes behind the work of Hirst is to reveal how a great percentage of it is born of genuinely universal human truths, fears, and questions.
Hirst often presents the viewer with a set of opposing ideas or formal aspects. In so doing, this ambivalence creates deeper levels of tension in his works that beg to be either worked out, or just witnessed as spectacle. Although Hirst’s works sometimes can appear to be one-liners (in a way), they are saved either by the monumental size or the attention to detail and execution of the final work. At their best, they are both horrific and angelic, and can take one’s breath away.
Take, for example, the piece he is arguably most known for, For the Love of God (Figure 1). After purchasing a human skull, Hirst then cast a perfect replica of the skull in platinum. Next, the skull was affixed with 8,601 perfect diamonds. The idea for the skull was born out of the fact that Hirst had, in his words, “lots of cash” (Hirst, 19). In an interview with renowned curator Elena Geuna, Hirst claimed that it was the large amounts of money from painting sales that made him feel like King Midas (19). He decided to make “something important (…) that will not be forgotten in the middle of all of this chaos” (19). Influenced by the turquoise diamond skull at the British museum, Hirst decided to start buying massive quantities of diamonds. He was excited because no one had done it, and it “was just a huge thing and it cost lots of money, but luckily, I had lots of money” (19).
While this statement is both vapid and shallow, it also naively reflects on the brilliant truth of the finished work. Skulls, traditionally, in vanitas paintings were used as momento mori (Fuchs). They were often muted and subdued in color, and were accented by ephemeral objects, like rotting fruits, flowers, small animals and insects. The vanitas skulls spoke of death as something to be respected, if not feared.
Hirst’s skull, in contrast, says something entirely different. The perfect diamonds were chiseled out of the earth by men of meager means, then crafted into exquisite, rare commodities, then purchased by a rich artist who works in lavish materials, then sold into an overly-inflated, gratuitous art market. Furthermore, its reference to an Aztec skull, made for the gods of a long-gone civilization, could suggest that this skull is an offering to a current culture of exploitation, and a god of money.
The diamond skull conjures up opposing ideas and values, least of which is the trivialization of death by suggesting that some monuments will outlast the men who make them. His skull has indeed become not only a “victory over decay” that “expresses a wonderful pride of vision, putting melancholy at a distance” (Fuchs), but also a contemporary icon of opulence. As a physical object, it is insanely well crafted and splendidly gorgeous.
Hirst has a dark side, however, and it is equally powerful.
A Thousand Years (Figure 2) is a balanced spectacle of horror and fascination. Hirst wanted to create a “life cycle in a box” (Hirst, A Thousand Years). The massive box, or vitrine, is split in half by a glass wall. There is a hole in the glass wall that lets newly hatched flies to move freely in and out of both rooms. In one room are two trays of sugar cubes and cotton balls, presumably to help feed the flies. In the other room, a cow head rots. Above the head hangs a bug zapper that constantly kills the unsuspecting flies.
The room creates a spectacle to watch death take place, and because of that, the audience is confronted with death’s repulsiveness and violence. However, the piece also points to death’s normality, because one cannot help but be reminded of flies that are swatted and murdered in kitchens everyday, without reverence.
Here, in front of the viewer, this “theater” makes death obvious. The deeper questions about death and decay bubble up slowly from the subconscious. One cannot help but reflect on one’s own mortality whilst gazing upon rot, decay, larva bursting open into new life, and flies falling to the ground with each disturbing short electronic buzz. The whole piece is affronting, and yet can be tolerated from a safe, sanitary distance.
Thus, as an opposing work to the materialistic majesty of For the Love of God, the reality of death in A Thousand Years brings an equally messy, horrific balance.
It is fairly easy to see the similarities between Damien Hirst and Petah Coyne. Like Hirst, Coyne is working with somber undercurrents and melancholic themes. Also, like Hirst, Coyne’s choices of materials range from organic and benign, (wax, hair and straw) to more confrontational mediums (dead fish and taxidermy), to industrial mediums (black iron-ore sand and shredded metal).
Where Hirst’s work is either meticulously created in the utmost perfection, or else rotting into a pulsating mass on cold tile, Coyne’s work offers a balance in between the two. She wields a sharp baroque sensibility and dark Victorian heaviness into her work. Yet despite their symbolic weight of wet sackcloth, the pieces seem capable of shaking off their melancholia at any moment, revealing the brilliant hidden colors underneath.
Also, although horror and beauty also dominate the work of Petah Coyne, she uses the horror as a kind of unseen, sinuous tissue that holds the muscles and bones of her work together. Her work seems to breathe, heave, swell, and sink as a living object trapped in a foreign body. Take, for example, Black Heart (Figure 3).
In Black Heart, a mass of black wire hangs from the ceiling heavily, awkwardly. The tube-like structures jutting out from the form seem to be heart ventricles and arteries, but also instruments driven into the wiry flesh. The piece borders on ugly, but its weight gives it a kind of authority in the room.
Upon digging deeper, one learns the context of Black Heart’s creation: that it was inspired from Coyne witnessing an open-heart surgery, as well as Coyne’s volunteered time spent working with terminally ill cancer patients. At the same time, she was working in New York for Chanel in the advertising department. The women around her at Chanel were obsessed with beauty, going so far as to have surgery on their legs to make them look thinner. Black Heart was born out of this tension around the body; the manipulation from irrational standards of beauty, and the surgical removal of body organs that had gone awry. It is no wonder then that the piece looks unsolved. It is not violent; rather, it is barely alive.
Digging deeper is not required to understand Coyne’s work, but it is rewarding. In Eguchi’s Ghost (Figure 4), another heavy object hangs from the ceiling, suspended in a brownish-painted room. The object appears to be made entirely of hair, masses piled on top of one another, gleaming in the light. Upon further inspection, it is revealed that the material is shredded metal from an airstream trailer.
Coyne had gone to a vehicle “recycling” plant, and learned the horrors of recycling cars. Instead of the shredding, smashing into blocks, and shipping to China to be melted down into new metal for new cars, Coyne halted the process. Without relying on didacticism, she pointed at the inadequacies that lie dormant in the public knowledge of recycling, and commented on the invisible places our belongings go to die. In an interview with Rebecca Solnit, Coyne says, “Everyone thinks recycling is this wonderful thing, but no one really follows the whole path of recycling” (Coyne, 43).
In the same interview, Solnit says to Coyne,
“Your work speaks to the politics of our time and the things we don’t think about: embodiment and decay and materiality and the strange states of American abundance and deprivation. […] You can understand it on a level that’s much more sensuous and embodied”(41).
Embodiment is an effective word to describe Coyne’s work. She is able to combine sacred and profane elements into a cohesive, sensual art piece. Pieces like Tom’s Twin (Figure 5) embody the melancholic yet deliciously opulent wardrobes of Victorian era wives, eternally dressed in black. The waxy flowers fold into themselves as they undulate across the floor in a mass. Roses, the icons of mourning (as well as lust), are forever trapped together, demanding a response of both poetry and terror from those who look upon it. Coyne hides meaning in the folds of her work, combining terror with beauty. Her work is too horrible not to look at, and yet too beautiful to look away.
Both Damian Hirst and Petah Coyne address death and life, yet they do it through entirely different lenses. The lens of Coyne is soft, scratchy, and dreamlike. She buries the truth within the beauty, delivering it in a package that is opulent, decadent, and almost sickening. In contrast, the lens of Hirst is sterile, precise, and nearly surgical. The human hand is evident in his austere delivery of ironic truths about life and death. Together, these two artists present an interesting cross section of how these ancient themes manifest in contemporary society.