It is a measure of Damien Hirst that the third major show at his recently opened Newport Street Gallery is dedicated to his good friend and fellow artist Gavin Turk. He is, and always has been, a great supporter of his artist friends: “if you like their work and they need money, rather than loan them the money, you buy a piece.” Not that Turk, one of the more successful and high-profile of the YBAs, needs a bob or two from Hirst. Although looking around the extensive show “Gavin Turk: Who What When Where How & Why”, it is astonishing to think that the works have all been entirely drawn from Hirst’s personal collection.
From seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities to works from the pivotal figures of 20th century art, Hirst has amassed a vast collection spanning over 3,000 pieces and worth well in excess of £100 million. A “collection is deeply personal”, says the artist, revealing much “about who the collector is, and what they believe in or are afraid of”. Of course, with Hirst we have long been acquainted with his greatest fear. To put it simply, Hirst just “fucking hates death.” He has fashioned a career as an everyman’s existentialist, producing modern day memento moris like his famous work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
As a student Hirst worked part-time in a mortuary in Leeds, famously making artworks of himself smirking beside human corpses despite being “absolutely terrified” of them. Collecting and the fear of death have always been inextricably linked, a collector responds to his fear by living a kind of fantasy of permanence through his collection. They will often donate collections to public institutions or in the case of Hirst, one the world’s richest artists, open up their own gallery to exhibit it all.
The Newport Street Gallery has already shown exhibitions dedicated to Jeff Koons and John Noyland from Hirst’s own collection, staying true to his belief that “collectors have a responsibility not to let their works gather dust in some forgotten warehouse”. All curated by the artist himself, the shows provide yet more evidence that Hirst has a great eye. His first curatorial show “Freeze” in 1988 which he organized while still a student, is commonly acknowledged to have been the launching pad for the YBA generation of British artists that would come to dominate the art scene of the 1990s. Turk was not actually part of this legendary show, he would make his mark later.
In many ways their coming together is ideal, Turk renowned for immortalizing pop icons from Andy Warhol to Sid Vicious, is perhaps best placed to examine Hirst, the gleeful self-publicist. His outrageous behavior in his 90s heyday drew the media spotlight and made him a startling and rebellious celebrity figure. His party trick was to get strangers to touch his penis by pretending the foreskin protruding from a hole in his trousers was some strange inexplicable substance.
They first really came into contact with each other in 1991 at Turk’s now notorious Royal College degree show. Turk, still an undergraduate, had enraged the tutors at the Royal College by whitewashing his studio space and simply hanging a blue heritage plaque (identical to the kind found on historical London buildings) with the words “Gavin Turk worked here 1989-1991”. The tutors refused to award him his diploma but in so doing bestowed instant fame on the young artist. Soon Charles Saatchi began snapping up what he could and even selected Turk for his travelling show “Sensation” in 1997.
Since that self-commemorating blue plaque Turk has effectively been working his way backwards, creating his own legend and in so doing examining notions of fame and the value of art. For Identity Crisis, 1994 a mock-up of a Hello Magazine cover is presented in a light box, making a gleaming parody of an advertising campaign but also questioning the perception of one’s private life as seen through the filter of the mainstream media. Turk says himself “Making art is about trying to figure out what me is, what constitutes me.”
Much of Gavin Turk’s greatest work spirals around the notion that the artist has become a commodified entity of their own artwork. He is a regular participant in much of the work on show, and out of the chaos of his own versions of Jackson Pollock splatter paintings we see Turk’s signature endlessly repeated. That he has taken the signature of the artist, normally the hallmark of provenance and authority, and made it a recurring theme of the exhibition is a wry take on an era that worships ideas of authenticity.
Many of the most intriguing works on view are his trompe-l’œil works which include sleeping bags and rubbish bags painted to look like the real thing, but cast in bronze. The so-called “poster-boy of the whole show”, a flat tyre cast in bronze, is so well crafted that he has admitted to having “touched it a few times” himself, to make sure it is the real thing. In such a way he fetishizes items of mass culture, repurposing them in artful ways as a sort of self-fashioning and expression of identity.
For a collector, as Walter Benjamin once said, “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” With Hirst it seems we are now seeing a new facet of his persona as he explores themes he has all but exhausted in his artwork, examined through objects he collects and the work of others. It is intriguing to think that this may in the end be his most enduring legacy.
“Gavin Turk: Who What When Where How & Why” at the Newport Street Gallery runs from the 23rd of November 2016 through to the 19th of March 2017.
By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor