Why The Drain of Damien Hirst's Conceptual Bite Won't Fool the Market Long-Term

May 9, 2017

The poster boy/man for critical cynicism is back with his new body of work that feels intended to illicit the extreme polarizing accusations of hyper-commercialism, as it is intended to garner the fawning and Instagram snapping of the “followers” pack. To me, this has always been a part of his genius, but in his latest output in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, the underlying market-antagonism that so often formed the solid conceptual basis of his work feels wanton. Thus, Wreck of the Unbelievable strays into the “show with no substance” territory that his critics have always insisted he be confined. For this reason, I believe, the works will ultimately undergo a market trajectory similar to the experience of viewing them - a slope from the bedazzled to the banal.

A collection of vessels
Damien Hirst - Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, A collection of vessels. Copyright Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

Damien Hirst and the 189 Sculptures

Although we will not know the consolidated market reception for Wreck of the Unbelievable until further down the line, it is difficult to argue that the show will be the resurrection of Damien Hirst’s market that it was projected (or more accurately - marketed) as. The true market appraisal will come when the works go to the secondary market, which is unlikely to be too far in the future, given previous patterns in Hirst’s market. However, in the short term, the artist’s market is likely to spike, not least because of the stark new aesthetic departure and the quantity of the output. Consisting of a series of 189 sculptures, the show depicts a set of mythological warriors, monsters and ancient royalty, beautifully and ornately sculpted in bronze and labeled as though they were ancient antiquities. Collector psychology will likely lead many long-term Hirst supporters to naturally wish to possess a piece to complete their collection, alongside fresher collectors more swayed by the “ceremony” accompanying this new aesthetic vein. Furthermore, the quantity of the work produced, although great (with each sculpture an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs) is comparatively limited where Hirst is concerned. If we consider the innumerable spot paintings and other key segments of his oeuvre that have been produced over the years, the relative rarity of each sculpture is sure to drive an initial bust of market interest.

However, the longer-term market value of Wreck of the Unbelievable is likely to be less enthusiastic, due to several key conceptual strains within Hirst’s oeuvre that are ultimately lacking and will retrospectively diminish the ardor. The overarching thematic departure is the way in which he plays his role as the quasi-accomplice to neo-liberal market forces within the art market that he has, at times, grabbled with in exceptionally astute and subtle manners. Unfortunately, within his latest project, this subtlety has been drowned alongside the monsters he has created.

Sphinx, detail
Damien Hirst - Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Sphinx, detail. Copyright Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

Over £50 Million in Production Costs

First, let’s take into account the direct use of extreme financial capital to generate the works. The cost of the production itself was reported to be upwards of £50 million, with Damien Hirst personally contributing a large proportion of the production sum. However, within Wreck of the Unbelievable, despite the use of great financial scale, the sharpness of his critique/embrace of the market and the underlying strength of his conceptual premise are far weaker than in his previous work. For example, as part of the “performance” around For the Love of God (2007), the vast sums inputted both into its creation and initial purchase (largely by Hirst and his gallerist Jay Jopling) was inseparable from the conceptual basis of the piece; the same could be said of his 2008 Sotheby’s auction, the over-production of the spot paintings and several other veins.

However, where Wreck of the Unbelievable falls short is through the emancipation from this thematic exploration whilst still containing the lingering fingerprints of its execution and practice. In this respect, Hirst has retained the excessive financial, quantitative and proportional scale that harkens to his engagement with the absurdity of the market, whilst no longer making an intelligible comment on it. The diamond skull logically needed to be expensive to create its dialogue, the spot paintings are so numerous so as to comment on the phenomenon of mass production versus artistic authorship (although it is noteworthy that said spot paintings have seen a sharp market downturn in recent years), but to create a body of work considering the complexities of truth and post-truth, as Damien Hirst has done in Wreck of the Unbelievable, the same expense and scale was not required and in fact distracts from the thematic exploration of the piece. For this reason, when the market evaluates his oeuvre in the longer term, I believe this will be an aspect of his current output’s downfall, as collectors are unwilling to pay exorbitant prices for weaker conceptual arguments.

damien hirst
Damien Hirst - Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Copyright Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

Utilizing Kitsch and Pop to an Extreme Degree

The other aspect of Wreck of the Unbelievable that I posit will diminish the longer-term market value of the series is the iconography itself. In his attempt to examine value and meaning through a lens of “post-truth”, Hirst utilizes the kitsch and the pop to quite an extreme degree. The argument that there is a sarcasm and mockery that some critics have put forward is true in essence. For example, the sculpture depicting Hirst himself holding hands with Mickey Mouse, entitled The Collector with Friend, does make an amusing comment on the nature of art and collecting and the layer of trickery involved. However, this is a comment made far more articulately in many other artworks, some even by Hirst himself at an earlier date. Ultimately, the characters and iconography in Wreck of the Unbelievable are read crudely without a consistent stream of thematic comment throughout.

Ultimately, Wreck of the Unbelievable has, in large part, performed as intended to rejuvenate interest in Hirst’s market and it will, at least initially, create a flurry of competition for the pieces. However, the exhibition’s ability to regenerate a solid confidence in his overall market is limited, as collectors have yet to be provided with a demonstration that he has not become consumed by the commercialism he critiques - no matter how much we may seek to believe otherwise.

All images copyright Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

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