About a year ago, I found myself approaching thirty and going through one of many, increasingly frequent and violent existential crises. They’re not uncommon and it’s something for which I pin the blame to both the intelligence of our silly race, often spellbinding in its unparalleled capabilities, ever impressive in its ability to stun you with unbridled idiocy and my career as an artist. That awful ability to introspect and question was unravelling me in the bathroom.
I stood there, shaking with my hangover, washing my hair. I suddenly became terrifyingly aware of my own physical structure, tracing the contours of my skull with my fingers. It’s not every day that I stop and think about ligaments, tendons and bone, but partly down to the tired hungover brain, also because of my overactive creative mind, my entire body stalled in fear. I felt like Frodo when he puts on the ring of power and sees everything in ferocious clarity and awe, all rushing him like a territorial chimp as my fingers massaged the half-price TRESemmé ‘damaged hair’ shampoo into my scalp. FUCK ME, THERE’S ACTUALLY A SKULL IN THERE. I could have cried, the fear flooded me.
I’m telling you this because I’ve become really obsessed with Damien Hirst and the Young British Artist’s movement. A lot of Hirst’s work explores life and death and surely I can’t be the only artist out there who overthinks those particular nuggets? Why are we here? What happens when I’m dead? Did I choose to be born? There’s never an answer, only further distress.
This obsession started a few weeks ago when I started to feel stuck in a creative rut. I love my illustration work and always will, but it dawned on me that I had diverted my focus from creating for the sake of creativity in the headlong pursuit of doing everything in every discipline within the arts. I came perilously close to climbing that parameter too, almost signing up for a free course about moons only a fortnight ago during one particularly curious brain day. So I started to fill sketchbooks again and think about three dimensional environments.
Killing time one afternoon in Waterstones whilst waiting for a friend saw me make an impulse purchase of a book all about the YBA. This triggered an explorative journey, the first time in my life I have shown an unprompted interest in art history. I’m in this weird industry because I love creating something from nothing and I’m good at it, plus it is the only way I can comment on things that affect me without getting owned in a political shit fight. The ability to create is, in my opinion, the greatest power we have as humans.
But here I was, taking in this amazing conceptual art by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and the rest of those guys. Reading about the way it made the art world exciting again in the 1990’s inspired me in a bigger way than ever before because they were taking things of beauty, that are overlooked on a daily basis and placing them in a context that make you think deeper than their surface value.
I found myself simultaneously pissing myself laughing and getting irate at the twats running down the work of the YBA; art critics and youtube commentators, all wasting their energy defacing someone else’s work instead of championing something they liked. I have no problem with people disliking the work, but to question its place in the arts? It’s beautiful isn’t it? Watching the nuclear fallout from work so shocking or new that people vomit or orgasm over it. ‘It’s not art, it’s science’ is a common one, referring to Hirst’s animal pieces. I have never differentiated between the two. Duplicating a sheep or growing an ear on a mouse? Art, with no place in science. Botox deserves its own movement.
One wanker did manage to really get under my skin amidst all of this. He suggested that no young artists are influenced by Hirst’s work, so it will not stand the test of time. Are we talking mimicry, here? I can tell you for a fact I have stayed awake the last week thinking about his work and I’m more influenced than him by anyone else right now and I’m putting out the best work of my career. You won’t see Hirst in my output because I create work that is a product of my own environment, not pale imitations of textbook masters and gallery masterpieces of ages gone by, the nineties included. But Hirst’s ability to turn the everyday and banal into thought provoking works of unprecedented originality has set me alight, really helping me to live in the moment and see magnificence in the commonplace.
The YBA turned me on creatively. The fact of the matter is, there are no rights or wrongs in the arts. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ hold equal value and are mere perceptions, owned by every individual, theirs for them to do as they wish. At school, my GCSE teacher sent me out the class and reported me to my mother when I drew him as a rodent in a sawdust filled cage. Ten years later, I was doing the same thing and the creative press featured the work and showed it to a massive audience. Neither of them were right or wrong, but there was a strange refraction of beauty in both outcomes, born of an antagonistic sense of humour that has been partly responsible for both a successful start to my career and near misses in getting my face smashed in by angry offended people. I’m sure there were people angered by the column inches afforded to what started as a studio in joke, but that in itself is a result.
Before I learned the name of Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living,’ I used to look at that giant Tiger Shark corpse, preserved in its formaldehyde tank and wait for the big questions to come barging into my brain like bailiffs, claiming the happiness I had stock-piled from friends and public appreciation of my work, leaving me feeling all alone and mortal in my cold skull, vulnerable again. The swimming pool turquoise did something to me, isolating this beast that once lived, death staring me down, cornering me. The fact that Hirst had the idea, arranged the construction of the piece, had the balls to put it on display in a gallery astounded me. In that process, it became art, to me. When I learned the title, from my book, it all made sense. No scientist could perform such a human feat.
I grew up drawing heavily detailed pencil portraits of people and sketches of buildings because that’s what went before. I learned to paint and draw in perspective, in three dimensions because the pieces in galleries were all I knew. Then one day I saw a beautifully simplistic line drawing and I lost interest in the pencil shading and deviated from that path. I think it was a Tracey Emin.
We’re living under a cloud of social apathy, deafened by the noise of the internet in this country, dominating the minds of many. It’s high time that art started to scream defiance once more, a massive, hairy, body odour emitting ‘fuck you all’ to those who dictate what is right and wrong. I stopped entering most awards because their relevance in a world ruled by opinion is non-existent. I want to see art that makes people angry or tearful through joy, keeping them awake at night and empowering individuals, I want people to be sharing my work and eventually, because maybe they related to it in some way, I want people getting divorced, married or attacked because my work triggered such a divide of opinion that the human brain simply rejects it on a primordial level. But that’s just me. The Sistene Chapel took my breath away, but I see equal wonder in the woollen mills I grew up near, takeaway shop fronts and one pound stores. What makes and has always made the arts as precious as any diamond encrusted work of art is everyone’s ownership of it. It’s the greatest form of personal expression on earth.