x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Eyes of the East on art rebel

A genius to some and a 'pirate' to others, Damien Hirst will be in the frame next week at artparis-AbuDhabi exhibition.

Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst

When Damien Hirst first electrified the art world in the Nineties with his pickled tiger shark (aka, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) and formaldehyde-drenched sheep (Away From the Flock), some farmers thanked him for raising the profile of British lamb. That was one of the more ironic reactions to the Britart figurehead whose work over the past two decades has provoked a range of responses, from the bewilderment of sections of the public and irritation of much of the media to adulation from the nattering classes. Either way, however, he was a sensation.

As Georgina Adam, the editor at large of The Art Newspaper, puts it, "I think he was serious at the beginning. He was a phenomenon, a scrappy, gritty boy who did have a lot of ideas. He set the iconographic agenda for the Nineties but now I think he has sold out, morphed into somebody who is not an artist but somebody who is producing branded goods such as his butterfly works and the spots." On Monday the Middle East gets a chance to see up close what all the fuss has been about, and judge for itself, when one of Hirst's serial butterfly canvases, created in 1999 with household gloss and butterfly wings, goes on show, and on sale, at the second artparis-AbuDhabi fair at the Emirates Palace hotel.

Not that this piece is in any way unique. Hirst himself has queried his prodigious output: "I was in my studio recently looking at all the work in there and I thought, 'this is ... insane. Who is this guy? Can't you give it a rest? You don't need to make so much stuff'." No one is saying how much they expect the circular painting to fetch, but in October last year another example from the series, Eternity, sold for £4.7 million (Dh26.4m).

Last year's first artparis-AbuDhabi fair attracted more than 9,000 visitors over three days, who spent US$15.8m (Dh58m). Organisers predict 15,000 will visit this year's five-day show, a shop window for 58 galleries from 22 countries. Billed as "an art fair integral to the cultural development of Abu Dhabi", showcasing the works of hundreds of artists from Cézanne and Matisse to Picasso and Warhol, it also offers an opportunity to examine Hirst's reputation as a key player in the world of contemporary art.

Of course, many commentators reckon they already have the measure of the man. Before a recent auction of his work at Sotheby's in London, the respected critic Robert Hughes wrote: "If there is anything special about this event, it lies in the extreme disproportion between Hirst's expected prices and his actual talent. Hirst is basically a pirate, and his skill is shown by the way in which he has managed to bluff so many art-related people."

Brian Sewell, the acerbic critic of the London Evening Standard, has said: "I don't think of it as art ... It is no more interesting than a stuffed pike over a pub door. Indeed, there may well be more art in a stuffed pike than a dead sheep." On the other hand, Charles Saatchi, the multimillionaire advertising mogul-turned-art-collector who helped to launch Hirst's career with the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, rates him as a genius. "Art books dated 2105 will be as brutal about editing the late 20th century as they are about almost all other centuries," he once said. "Every artist other than Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be a footnote."

Whatever posterity's verdict, Hirst was undoubtedly the ringleader of the Young British Artists movement which spawned Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers, Sarah Lucas and Gilbert and George. Born in 1965, he grew up in the northern city of Leeds, the son of a car mechanic who left home when Hirst was 12. He was arrested twice for shoplifting but stayed on at school to take A levels, got into a local art school and later won a place at London's Goldsmiths College.

When he staged his own student show, entitled Freeze, in 1988, he was spotted by Saatchi and the rest is art history. By his own admission, this early fame brought its difficulties. He became an enthusiastic drinker and drug-taker - "overnight I turned into a babbling wreck", he has said. "I started to blow gaskets and pop rivets" - but his works sold in their hundreds for millions of pounds. He is now reputed to be a dollar billionaire and the owner of a property empire comprising dozens of houses, including a £3m mansion in the English Cotswolds, where he lives with his Californian partner, Maia, and their three children.

Nothing wrong with that. Georgina Adam argues: "Nobody begrudges him making money. The romantic notion that the artist has got to be starving and cutting off ears is completely out of date. Artists are increasingly sought after by businesses, by fashion houses and by designers because of their creativity, so why shouldn't they be remunerated?" Nonetheless, the criticism is that instead of money chasing the art, now it is the artist chasing the money, although Hirst is not alone in that. After years of record-breaking sales, the global art market is slowing down.

It has been a bad couple of months. Picasso's Arlequin was withdrawn from a recent Sotheby's sale in New York because it did not look as if it would achieve the reserve of $30m. Another Sotheby's auction, in London in October, including works by Hirst and Warhol, saw sales of £22m, but well short of the predicted £43m; also last month, Christie's sold a Lucian Freud portrait of Francis Bacon for a mere £5.4m - at the low end of the £5m-to-£7m guide price.

October's Frieze Art Fair in London, usually a monstrously glamorous affair, attracting collectors and gallery owners from around the globe, was reported as being "subdued". Worse, in New York on Wednesday a Bacon self-portrait, pitched by Christie's at $40m, failed to attract a buyer. Most ominously for the Abu Dhabi butterflies, a few days earlier a Sotheby's auction in the same city had to settle for $125m instead of the expected $202m - with a Hirst spot painting, earmarked at $850,000, failing to attract a single bid.

Hirst's own, middleman-bypassing auction at Sotheby's in London in September - a bravura display of bling and baubles he called Beautiful Inside My Head Forever - had the feeling of a last hurrah to cheer a recession-hit art world. Although the way the works were displayed made the saleroom look like a Prada shop and the event was manifestly aimed at new money, the London Evening Standard claimed that despite the reported £95.7 million raised, not all of the works on display were sold.

Perhaps most tellingly, Hirst has yet to find a buyer for his diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a human skull, entitled For The Love of God; after it was sold last year for a reported £50m, it emerged that Hirst himself was one-third of the consortium which had bought it. This non-sale, believes Adam, contains the seeds of the artist's decline. So if Hirst - or indeed any contemporary artist - is not making quite the impact he used to, and with London and New York slipping from their positions of eminence in the art world, it is perhaps inevitable that, like any other industry seeking a financial lifeline in these difficult times, the art business should turn to the Middle East. At a Sotheby's sale in London in June last year, Qatar's ruling Al Thani family bought Hirst's Lullaby Spring - a medicine chest sculpture of painted pills - for £9.65m, the highest price paid for a work by a living European artist at auction.

In March, Art Dubai featured 68 galleries from 28 countries and reportedly generated a turnover of more than $15m, with a Warhol going for $1.95m, photographs by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat for more than $300,000 and a Julian Opie for $62,000. Christie's has now held two successful sales in Dubai since it opened an office there in April 2005, with the biggest prices being paid for contemporary Indian artists, and last month the company assembled in Abu Dhabi art worth $350m, including a Rothko, a Bacon and two Monets.

Hirst's butterflies touch down in an Abu Dhabi bursting with artistic promise and with the attention of the world focused on its well-publicised plans to build the largest Guggenheim museum and an annexe of the Louvre in Paris. Adam is convinced the city will be a force in the market - not least because the new buildings will need something to go in them. She argues that while the museums and galleries will concentrate on Iranian and Middle East art, they will want to assess the taste of art enthusiasts in Abu Dhabi and will need to exhibit a representative selection of western art.

Enter Damien, perhaps. Surprisingly, Hirst's appeal for the organisers of artparis-AbuDhabi may well be that he no longer has the power to shock; even the deliberately profane title of the work on sale now seems passé. And without the shock of the new, the sensation, what is left? After all, few would look at the butterflies and spots and declare how wonderful the composition, how fine the brushwork or applaud an amazing departure in creativity.

Perhaps the residual appeal of such work is that it is not unattractive, is instantly recognisable - important for those who collect for kudos - and retains a commercial value for those for whom art is a hedge. Crucially, because the works have no overt political or religious themes, they create no waves in countries that have cultural sensitivities to such subjects. The danger, in other words, is that Hirst has become a trophy artist, whose buyers are seen by some as no longer being connoisseurs but demonstrating their financial clout.

But will their purchases prove in the end to be much of a trophy, or even a hedge? Estimates have it that there are 1,000 of Hirst's spot paintings hanging on walls around the world. Such is the nature of modern art's production-line realities that he is said to have painted only four of them himself. Not that the man himself loses sleep over such things. "I've stopped worrying about what art is," he once said. "If it's in an art gallery on the wall or on the floor, it's probably art."

* The National