Nobody likes to see a bad boy turn good. It destroys your faith in faithlessness. The usual deal with our cultural rebels is that while we sit at home in our armchairs and take no risks, they strut our stuff for us: misbehave, take groupies, drink themselves into stupors, swallow illicit substances and seek naughtiness.
We elect these front-line wild guys to be rebellious in ways we perhaps might be if we were not the wimps we are. So the news that Damien Hirst has given up drink and drugs completely, and that his first one-man show in Britain for a decade is to be devoted overwhelmingly to religious imagery, will send ripples of raw anxiety through the faux-rebel population at large. Oh, no. Not Damien. Not ‘the alpha male of British contemporary art’, as they call him at the Saatchi Gallery. Not the man who massacres flies by the million and kills killer sharks. Please don’t let it be Damien. But it is. Sort of.
I have in my hand as I write – and I think this is an exclusive – a sheaf of poems that Damien Hirst has produced specially for his new show. That’s right. Poems. There are 13 of them. Twelve for each of the apostles and a separate one for Jesus. Each of these poems will accompany a glass box filled with medicinal and symbolic bric-a-brac that seeks also to portray these same 12 apostles and Jesus. ‘A trillion dancing spandrels/of light surrounded you,’ goes the second of the unexpected poems. ‘Slow motion, weightless/ Generous before the blight/soft rotted figs fell from the tree of life.’
When a man starts writing poems about trillions of dancing spandrels of light, and generous figs falling from the tree of life, then his days of rampaging through the Groucho Club high on coke are clearly over and something significant is afoot in his psyche. The glass cabinets, some of which have holes drilled into them at the points where the relevant saints were nailed to the cross, as well as lots of blood, will be fixed to the walls in a dark and gory glazed surround that seeks to set the tone for Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, as Damien’s new show is called.
I think it is safe to conclude that the Age of Uncertainty describes the bad times we are living through, and that Damien himself is on the side of Romance, fragile stuff in our world, as easy to buffet as a butterfly in a gale. ‘I remember living in the world of desire/before the age of romance/A love now crushed in the vice-like grip of truth,’ he warbles in poem number five. It’s not Auden, for sure. But it makes its point atmospherically enough. Things used to be nice. Now they are not.
‘Do you believe in God?’ I ask him straight out, as we settle down for confessions and explanations in the library of his rambling country residence in Devon. I’ve been invited to spend the weekend with the corpse meister as he prepares to reveal these dark, new religious conundrums to the public.
‘I don’t know,’ he mumbles back, a tad nervously. ‘It’s a very complicated word. I mean, you find yourself thinking about death a lot as you get older, and I was starting to think that maybe, when you’re older, it becomes the only option or something. Some kind of safety net that you build for yourself. I think it needs revisiting. Let’s see, you know. Let’s see how the church is getting on. I mean, it’s failed so miserably. And they defend it so badly.’
So there you have it. Straight from the shark’s mouth. Damien Hirst has sort of found God, and he’s sort of making religious art because he sort of feels the church needs him. What we have here, reader, is a wolf who has whipped off his black pelt to reveal the fluffy little baa-lamb hiding beneath.
I have to admit I saw it coming. I have long suspected that the man who saws cows in half and then peeps inquisitively into their expired corpses is himself a big softie inside. My dealings with Damien over the years have divided fairly evenly into encounters with the good Damien and the bad one. The bad one was pretty damn naughty, it has to be said. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has seen him drop his trousers and insert things into his penis. It was a favourite drinking trick. He’d usually attempt it while staggering about the Groucho Club in the company of that excessively decadent pal of his, Keith Allen, possibly the worst influence on anyone else available in the whole of Britain, and the only star of screen and stage ever to stick his tongue down my throat. It was Keith’s horrible way of saying hello. He’d been eating fish.
Those two together were a menace to society on so many psychosocial levels. You may remember them storming up the pop charts a couple of European Championships ago in the unpleasant guise of Fat Les, the manufactured pop moron who put his podgy pop finger on the crude backbeat that activates our nation’s football hooligans with a galumphing terrace ditty called Vindaloo. I’m afraid I sang along with it as well.
To my knowledge, Damien Hirst is still the only important British artist ever to appear on Top of the Pops. Fat Les, sighs Damien, keeps coming back. Like everyone else in the country, he has been on the Atkins diet recently, as part of his spectacular return to healthiness, so he knows what he’s talking about when he suggests that Fat Les may be reappearing as Fat Loss.
He looks good. Clean, lean, with a snazzy pair of blue-tinted specs. He’s been off toxics since the end of last year and was already sober when his great friend Joe Strummer of the Clash died suddenly of a heart attack a couple of days before Christmas. Joe lived near Damien in Devon. They were close.
When Damien challenges me to a game of snooker in the specially constructed snooker salon attached to his house, and beats me 3-0, with some explosive long-potting, and a few devious little nudges and calls he thought I hadn’t spotted, it’s the Clash who supply the soundtrack. London Calling blares out again and again from the snooker jukebox.
Damien was a punk back in Leeds, where he grew up. The Clash were his gods. When he went on the wagon, Joe used to try to tempt him off it. He was only 50 when he died. As soon as he heard of Joe’s horribly premature death, Damien got a gang of his people over to Joe’s house to catalogue and collect everything in Joe’s studio, down to the last Rizla paper. He’s donating it all to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, where it will form a shrine to Joe Strummer.
In the old days, in the Age of Inebriation, I met Damien a couple of times at the Glastonbury festival weaving around backstage with large chunks of intoxicant coursing through his veins, mixing it with his pop-star pals – the chaps out of Blur, Strummer, the dreaded Keith Allen out of Fat Les – while his mother, Mary, looked after his children and kept them safe – not easy backstage at Glastonbury. Damien, off his head, in the company of pop stars, was a compelling advertisement for sobriety. His skin had a flaky look to it, as if he too had been immersed overlong in formaldehyde, like that unfortunate shark of his that popped up at the Sensation show moulting chunks of its body into its liquid surrounds. When Damien’s hair started to go grey and thin out, it took on a sticky sheen, as if dogs had been licking it. ‘I was turning into Jeffrey Bernard,’ he now admits.
But even while Damien’s decomposition was taking place in full view of the rest of us, there was, of course, another, gentler, kinder, truer, inner Damien on prominent display at the same time: in his work, silly. One of the biggest mysteries in British modern art is how he has managed so successfully to maintain his reputation as a crazed, bloodthirsty shock artist when even the most cursory examination of the stuff he produces reveals a soppy and spectacularly softhearted romantic.
If Damien were a Christmas card he’d be the one with the most robins in it, the one with the whitest snow, the most holly.
For instance, has anyone ever produced art that is quite as sentimental and lovey-dovey as his butterfly pictures? No wonder David Beckham has just bought one for Victoria. A Damien Hirst butterfly picture would melt the heart of Roy Keane, let alone a notorious family man like the boy David: all those beautiful little butterflies, with all those gorgeous colours in their wings, stuck so poignantly to the canvas, in such huge numbers.
Did I know, asks Damien, that he is now Britain’s biggest importer of butterflies? No, I certainly did not. His new butterfly pictures use up so many of the things that he cannot get enough of them and has to salvage extra specimens wherever he can. Three people are at work full-time in his studio in Gloucestershire making butterfly pictures. The pictures use more butterflies than ever. So densely are they packed with geometric configurations of lepidopteral wonders that, from a distance, they look like stained-glass windows. When his new show goes up, his butterfly pictures will do their bit by creating a dark, religious glow.
I’ve interviewed Damien a couple of times before when he was sober and he has always been the soul of politeness: full of insights and snappy opinions. So when all those intriguing rumours began to circulate around the art world that he had cleaned up his act – no more drink or drugs, no more inserting things into his penis – and found God, my ears pricked up. He’s joined AA, said the rumour-spreaders. He’s following the 12 steps, and that’s where God fits in.
Alarmed by these garbled reports of the forest-load of new leaves that he was supposed to have turned over, I fixed up to see him first at his studio, where his new work was being finished for the big show, and then at his house, where he was going to cook me dinner. The last time I went to interview him, for a TV film, he made a delicious wild garlic soup from the plants the two of us picked in his private wood. This time he promised me lamb. I love lamb.
The deal was that I would turn up at the studio after 4 o’clock on a Friday, and then spend the Saturday with him. I couldn’t come any earlier because Damien was receiving some buyers. No, it wasn’t David Beckham. Just somebody else I shouldn’t see. The studio is in a converted factory by the side of a trout stream near Stroud. It’s huge. Outside, wrapped in spectacular quantities of swaddling, stands the unmistakable outline of Hymn, the giant medical model of the inside of a man of which Damien has made three casts, one of which Charles Saatchi bought for £1m.
Damien has now fallen out with Saatchi over the hanging of the Damien Hirst retrospective with which Saatchi chose to open his new museum in London’s County Hall. Saatchi asked Damien for suggestions, and then ignored them when Damien made some. Even though it contains almost all his best-known work, Damien refuses to see the Saatchi show.
In the middle of his studio is a crucified cow. I never imagined that a cow with its legs outstretched would look this big. What a sight. It’s the first of three of them, a bovine recreation of Christ and the two thieves on Calvary, that is due to go on show at the Prada museum in Milan.
Looming even taller is another new work: Charity, a giant little girl clasping a teddy bear, based on those collecting boxes that used to stand outside newsagents, into which we were encouraged to drop our spare change. Charity, who is roughly the height of a double-decker bus, is going to stand in the middle of the square in Hoxton when Damien’s new show opens at the White Cube. Alas, her collecting box has been jemmied open. That’s what happens to charity in the Age of Uncertainty.
What’s that smell, Damien? Oh, that’s the fly factory. A chap called James is in there right now stocking it with fresh maggots bought from a fisherman’s supplier. Hundreds of the little lovelies are buzzing around James keenly, and they’ll soon be joined by thousands more. The fly’s role in Damien’s art is to die for him. A big, black picture called The Fear consists, I see, when I get up close to it, of nothing but dead flies stuck on in creepy cakes of death, many centimetres thick. Now that’s what I call a sacrifice.
Also in the new exhibition will be a work called The Last Supper, which consists of a Formica table around which 13 ping-pong balls are kept up in the air on jets of wine. And a cow with six legs, suspended in formaldehyde. It’s a real cow: one of the Almighty’s unpleasant little jokes.
Did I know, explains an enthusiastic Damien, as he leads me past the 12 increasingly gory cabinets dripping with deer’s blood that represent the apostles, that only one of Jesus’s disciples met a natural death? All the rest died violently? No, I didn’t. But I can certainly believe it now. By the time he has placed a severed cow’s head in front of each of his apostolic cabinets, as he plans to do, his comeback show will have created for itself a macabrely funereal atmosphere worthy of a Christian slaughter in Rome’s catacombs. Yes, he’s found Jesus, but not perhaps in ways that Cliff Richard would applaud.
I ask about his past. There’s nothing much on record about his childhood in Leeds. But the black and gory Catholicism seeping out of him today had to come from somewhere. So where? Instead of talking me through his origins, he gives me his mother’s number and suggests I speak to her.
Damien’s mother, Mary, is a minor art-world celebrity these days. Like Warhol’s mother, or Hockney’s, she’s carved out a curious little niche for herself as a conspicuous maternal presence to whom a famous artistic son is unusually devoted. Mary lives in Devon with Damien, his girlfriend, Maia, a surfing designer, and their two boys, gentle Connor, 8, and naughty Cassius, 3. She has a separate house. You can’t miss it. Outside is a big mailbox with Mary written on it in huge letters, as if she were a cartoon neighbour in a Tom & Jerry story.
I’d met Mary a couple of times before, at Glastonbury and the like, where her task was to remain sober and grounded while all around her drifted away to other planets. To be honest, I’d imagined her to be a touch flaky too, otherwise why would she be traipsing so dutifully along in the wake of her wayward son? I now see that I was wrong. Not only is she an interestingly responsible mother, she’s also terribly wise and amusing. Damien’s gift of the gab obviously comes from Mary. So, I suspect, does his fierce appetite for romance in uncertain ages.
Damien didn’t know his father. ‘Neither did I. Though I thought I did,’ chirps Mary in a comfortable Yorkshire accent you want to trust. He was a photographer on Jersey. Mary met him while working on the island, and was absolutely besotted with him. ‘I’m one of those people: it’s all or nothing with me.’
The photographer would take pictures of tourists and then deliver the prints to them the next morning, which meant working in the darkroom through the night. Mary would hang around in there with him, and was soon pregnant. She arrived on Jersey as a 21-year-old virgin, and left a few months later with Damien inside her. The photographer didn’t want to know.
She was unlucky to get pregnant, I suggest. Mary giggles. ‘Oh yes, I never get away with anything.’ She recently passed her driving test, and already she’s been done for speeding. She would not consider an abortion. That would have been murder. So she went to Bristol and had Damien at a Catholic home for unmarried mothers run by nuns. Then she went back to Leeds and got married to a boy she’d grown up with called Hirst. But there was no passion there, and they are now divorced. To this day, she is afraid of phoning the Jersey photographer in case her heart starts fluttering again.
Damien, now 38, has never met his biological father.
Her parents were strict Irish Catholics, who loved Damien, a sweet and self-contained lad. ‘He would always amuse himself. He’d never need amusing. He was a very quiet, very gentle and very caring child. Even now he is, but he doesn’t let it show very much. He wanted to be the clown of the class. You give yourself these personas and they take over.’ Young Damien was always drawing. ‘I thought, he’s going to do something with his art. I knew he would always do it. Even if he was a pavement artist or something.’
As for the Catholicism, she was a passionate churchgoer herself until Damien went to secondary school. She’d had two more children and fell out with her priest over issues she will only discuss with me off the record. It is not betraying her trust, I think, to record that her argument with the church concerned contraception. So these were Damien’s origins. Mary calls him ‘the best mistake I ever made’.
But the Catholicism he inherited from her would have been complex and active, rippling with guilts and confusions. She knows him better than anyone. But even she is surprised by the extraordinary reappearance of the papal faith in his work. ‘I never thought that Catholicism had much effect on him.’
Damien has grown outrageously rich since we last met. He has negotiated a new deal with his gallery, and is now on 70:30, rather than the traditional 50:50. And he’s been encouraging his artist friends to do the same. Why should an artist be on 50:50? he demands. Why indeed? While I’m there he buys a house that’s come up for sale next to his studio. It takes him all of 10 seconds to decide.
Back at the studio, Damien’s people make jokes about wishing he were still on the bottle. There was less work to do in the old days. Now he’s insatiable. He doesn’t see his clean new lifestyle as giving anything up. It’s about gaining something. ‘I suppose being sober is a bit like a new drug. I think maybe I was running out of roads to go down and now I feel there are lots of them. I mean, I spent a good few years when I was either off my tits or recovering’ – I know Damien, I know – ‘and I think you devote a hell of a lot of time to that. One thing you definitely notice with having kids is that you want to wake up and be in the same state that they are in.’
Surely this has never been a problem for him? Damien has always been particularly adept at achieving creative childishness. His notorious spin paintings, those round pictures, covered in runny colours, that go for thousands of pounds in auction, home in ruthlessly on the child within. There’s a machine for churning them out set up in his studio foyer. It is operated by a converted Black & Decker drill that he himself invented. And take it from me, it’s great fun squirting kiddy colours onto madly revolving surfaces, and then watching them run hither and thither in exciting new patterns, just as they used to do on my annual childhood visits to the Ideal Home Exhibition. Damien has me produce four of the things: he pedals while I squirt.
The way he’s managed to turn this banal kiddy process into excessively valuable Brit art provides intriguing proof of the fact that inside every stern adult with money to burn there resides a giggling toddler. Hirst senses this more acutely than any other artist practising in the world. It is one of the chief secrets of his success. When Charles Saatchi was showing me around his new museum in County Hall he suddenly blurted out that his favourite work of art in the world was Damien’s Away from the Flock: a fluffy little white lamb suspended in formaldehyde. I thought Saatchi was going to start crying when he admitted this. He obviously identified like crazy with the lonely little lamb. Damien targets the vulnerable inner child in his collectors with the skill of a trained assassin in a Frederic Raphael novel.
Not that I think he does it cynically, just to sell his stuff. Being half Irish, he too is genetically primed to sob into his Guinness. I remember him standing up to speak when he won the Turner prize in 1995, and wistfully insist that his greatest creation was his son Connor. It was an admission straight from the soft Irish centre of his heart, an organ that does much of his thinking for him.
A heartless English wag in the audience, the low-grade English conceptualist Mark Wallinger, shouted out: ‘So why don’t you pickle him?’ There were guffaws around the Wallinger table, but none from me. It was typical of Damien to out himself as a big softie at the coolest event in the British arts calendar.
To my mind, there is not a sliver of doubt that Damien Hirst’s arrival on the art scene changed the relationship between modern art and the British people. Without him, I suggest, there would be no Tate Modern; or at least no hugely successful Tate Modern with long queues outside it. Before Damien Hirst came along, nobody queued to see contemporary art. I was there.
I remember the lack of public interest absolutely vividly. Then Damien unveiled his boxed sharks and his divided cows and suddenly Brit art was as newsworthy as Posh and Becks.
‘I’ve always thought you have to get people listening to you before you can change their minds,’ he explains. The pickled sharks, the expiring flies, the sliced-up pigs, are intent on getting themselves noticed, sure, but once they’ve done that, the message they seek to convey is a charmingly old-fashioned one. Life is short and precious. Death is dark and inevitable.
Given his exceptional impact, how perverse that when Tate Modern opened up, all they had on show of Damien’s was a small cabinet in a poky corridor. Damien remains puzzled by this lack of Tate interest. He’s spoken to the director, Nick Serota. He’s even offered to give him work for free. But he has never heard back from the Tate. It’s my turn to comfort him. The Tate doesn’t do humanity, I tell him. They only do anally retentive modernist cool. The Tate hasn’t taken to Damien for the same reason that vegans don’t eat steaks. And Puritan churches don’t contain big, gory blood-splattered crucifixions.
It’s fair to say that nobody in the British art world has led his observers on such a ridiculous dance as Damien Hirst. He is, of course, the most famous Brit artist of them all, and an instantly recognisable brand name around the world. But maintaining this pre-eminence has involved keeping the surprises coming: a sapping effort. Whenever you expect him to skip to the left, he’s skipped to the right. This mad waywardness has been a deliberate feature of his career.
But nothing he has done so far, no outrageous manoeuvre he has attempted, feels quite as risky or out of step with the timbre of the times as this wild-eyed return to the gory darknesses and impenetrable mysteries of his Catholic past.