(T)Hirst for more

Whether or not it was intentional, there is something deeply ironic about the central installation in Damien Hirst's latest exhibition. Entitled The Tranquillity Of Solitude (for George Dyer), the work was inspired by Francis Bacon's paintings of his lover George Dyer..

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Published: Tue 18 Jul 2006, 12:57 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 4:40 PM

whom he found dead on a toilet from an overdose.

The Hirst exhibit, currently showing at London's Gagosian Gallery, consists of three glass cases, each containing a sheep in blue formaldehyde that appears to be acting out part of Dyer's tragic demise.

In the first, a shorn sheep is positioned on a lavatory seat, its head thrown back in an apparent silent scream and a hypodermic syringe jutting out of the animal's leg. Scattered on the floor beside the beast is a teaspoon and saucer: the paraphernalia of a junkie.

The second shows another sheep, this time suspended above a sink, and the third shows yet another lone sheep on a lavatory — this time appearing to vomit into a sink, with an empty alcohol bottle and some scattered pills at its feet.

It may be a matter for debate whether Hirst's fixtures are in fact 'art' — but what is undoubted is that the sheep are depicted as solitary beasts. The same, however, cannot be said of their inception, for this is not the work of a solo artist, but a veritable army of assistants.

Hirst's involvement went little beyond the 'concept' phase, with a phalanx of assistants employed in the logistics of obtaining and pickling the sheep, constructing the vitrines (glass display cases) and procuring and arranging the incidentals that complete the work.

For it is not Hirst, 41, who personally catches his animal specimens and pickles them. Nor is it he who painstakingly constructs the made-to-measure vitrines in which they are exhibited. Nor, even, is it he who popped across the road from the King's Cross gallery to a nearby cafe to obtain the teaspoon featured in the first part of the installation.

In fact, he didn't even place the spoon in the installation himself.

Like Andy Warhol before him, Hirst is now something of a cottage industry. Worth £100million, he can well afford to employ the 65 boiler-suited assistants who get their hands dirty so that the vanguard of Young British Artists doesn't have to.

Unashamedly a brand, he once famously said: 'The hand of the artist isn't important — you're trying to communicate an idea.'

So just how do a dead sheep, a monochrome loo seat and a 50p syringe become transformed into a multi-million pound work of art, preserved for posterity in a fixing agent and exhibited alongside work by celebrated artist Francis Bacon?

Dead animals are a recurrent theme in Hirst's work, but he knew little about them when he began designing his controversial works in the late Eighties.

With no clue how to preserve or dissecting cattle, art student Hirst paid Mark Chambers, the owner of a knacker's yard in Guildford, to carve the sculptures that would become some of the most famous works of the Nineties. Chambers was even involved in preparing the cow and calf floating in four tanks of formaldehyde that won Hirst the Turner Prize in 1995.

Chambers, who supplied the artist with a variety of cows, sheep and a pig, would gut and freeze the animals for him, before transporting them in freezer trucks to his London studio.

The cow and calf may have been featured in a piece entitled Mother And Child Divided, but they were not, in fact, related. Chambers recalls: 'The cow died while calving and the calf, which wasn't hers, came to us because it had a broken back.'

Chambers then froze the animals for a week, before cutting them to Hirst's specifications and delivering them to the artist in freezer vans.

Another of Hirst's famous works — an 18ft-tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde and enclosed in a glass case entitled The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living — cost £6,000 and came from Australia. The glass for the case cost far more — £28,000.

Hirst explained: 'I had an idea that you can get anything over the phone.' He telephoned post offices in Australian coastal towns and asked them to put up posters saying 'Shark wanted', then sat back while a host of shark-catchers rang him up offering their bounty.

The shark, like the cows and sheep, was then preserved in formaldehyde — or the liquid version, formalin — another process Hirst could not do himself.

This time he was helped by Oliver Crimmen, a fluid preservation expert from the Natural History Museum, and Mike Smith, a former artist who custom-makes all the Hirst vitrines.

Crimmen showed Hirst how to inject the formalin into the muscles of the animal, and to immerse it in the substance to ensure complete preservation — a process which takes almost a month, and can be fiddly. Sharks in particular have very large livers and require considerable time and effort to reach all the muscle tissue.

It is he, not Hirst who saws and welds the award-winning constructions, piecing together everything from the light fixture to the flooring.

Hirst has eschewed the typical image of an artist as an impoverished idealist struggling alone in a garret.

His first exhibition, Freeze, took place in 1988, while he was still a student at Goldsmiths College. The exhibition, held in a Docklands warehouse, contained work by Hirst and 16 of his fellow students, and is widely credited as the starting point for the Young British Artists movement.

Conceived, organised and promoted by Hirst — a Bristol-born youth whose father abandoned him at birth and was raised by his mother — the show attracted the attention of advertising guru Charles Saatchi, who began to commission and collect work from Hirst.

Renowned for his media savvy, Hirst set up his own company, employed a business manager and set about turning himself into a household name.

The strategy proved extremely lucrative and allowed Hirst to recently purchase a £3million country manor in Gloucestershire along with a property in Mexico, a houseboat, a family home in Devon and two London properties.

He was recently named as the 40th wealthiest person in The Sunday Times Rich List and has trained his staff in every aspect of 'Brand Hirst'.

Today, his personnel do almost everything themselves. At studios in Stroud, Lambeth and Vauxhall they scurry around in boiler suits, attending to every last detail of a Hirst 'masterpiece'.

Animals are acquired locally and Hirst's own staff have learned how to preserve in formaldehyde — using Natural History Museum experts for consultation purposes only.

At his Lambeth studio, assistants are positioned around the wall as if held by some centrifugal force, each carefully dabbing away at Hirst's latest obsession — photorealism.

Ever the shrewd businessman, he is careful not to let any of his workers think they are the creative force behind the work, and rotates them continually so no one person is responsible for the entire creation.

For the first part of The Tranquillity Of Solitude (For George Dyer) one assistant was sent out to buy a particular type of teaspoon from a cafe near the King's Cross branch of the Gagosian gallery.

For the second part, depicting a mutilated sheep suspended above a sink, an assistant was dispatched to John Lewis for the glass containing scalpels that sits by the sink.

And for the third — showing the vomiting sheep on a toilet — a man's watch on the side of the sink was transported from Gloucester.

'Damien decided it had to be his own watch in the piece, so he sent a driver back to his home in Gloucester to collect it,' explains one who worked on the piece.

The watch, by Swiss manufacturer Panerai, is thought to be worth around £20,000 and will be sold as part of the exhibit.

More assistants will transport the pieces to the gallery and spend hours positioning them in time for opening. And their work won't end there.

After just eight days of the current exhibition, so many dead flies had accumulated in the work A Thousand Years (where live flies feed on a cow's severed head), an assistant had to open the case after closing time and toil until 1am removing the detritus and repositioning the exhibit.

The lowly worker was back at his post first thing next morning. The multimillionaire artist was nowhere to be seen, but was said to be 'expected in later'.

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