What Is Art? I Don’t Know And Neither Does Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst
One of the perks of being a travel writer is you get to go to press viewings for upcoming exhibitions. While you don’t beat the crowds (hordes of journalists and hangers-on attend these things) you do get to see some great art for free. And if a show is disappointing, at least you didn’t have to pay for it.

I just went to the press viewing at the Tate Modern in London for “Damien Hirst,” a retrospective for one of Britain’s most famous contemporary artists. Hirst became hugely famous and wealthy in the 1990s as a leading figure in the Britart movement. His displays of preserved animals, dead flies, rows of pills and other studies of life and death polarized the artistic community. Critics either loved or hated his work and it became the center of that perennial and unanswerable question: “What is art?”

I have no idea what art is. I’ve heard lots of definitions, usually pontificated at me by some self-styled expert, and none of them have proved terribly convincing. For me, art is a visceral feeling, a reaction that I can’t entirely explain. To paraphrase the old line about pornography: I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it.

Sometimes.

Take one of Hirst’s most famous pieces, pictured above. This preserved shark is titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Is this art? To me it isn’t, since it didn’t give me any sort of gut reaction or make me see the world in a different way. If this is art, then every natural history museum is filled with art. And perhaps they are.

Damien Hirst
This one is called “Mother and Child Divided” and features a cow and calf cut in half. You can walk between the cases and see their insides. This was mildly interesting from a biological point of view, yet once again it felt more like natural history than art, until I saw how the journalists reacted to it. One photographer had brought his daughter along. The girl, about six years old, walked between the cases looking at the calf’s insides. She had that inscrutable expression children sometimes get when they react to something new.

I was wondering what was going on inside her head when a female photographer went up to her father and asked if she could take photos of the girl. The dad said yes and the photographer pulled out her camera. The girl immediately became stiff and put on her “smiling for a family photo” look.

“No, don’t look at me, look at the calf like you don’t know what to think of it,” the woman instructed. “Good! Now give me a cheeky grin.”

Snap snap snap, and the media had created their own reality.

The girl’s father was more ethical. He took a photo of me walking through the cow. I only realized what he was doing when the shutter clicked, so whatever expression I had on my face was the real one.

Is “Mother and Child Divided” art? Yeah, probably. While the piece itself didn’t teach me anything, the audience reaction sure did.

Damien Hirst
I bet that kid liked this next one. It’s called “Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kid’s stuff, lacking integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa).”

This is one of Hirst’s Spin Paintings, made by splashing paint on a rotating canvas. It’s something I did in grade school and something Hirst has done a lot. Well, actually his assistants do most of them. Art? Maybe, but not Hirst’s art. In fact many of Hirst’s paintings, including most of his famous Spot Paintings, consisting of rows of colored dots, are done by his assistants and are only “Hirst paintings” because they come from his studio.

Damien HirstThis one I found quite beautiful. It’s called “For the Love of God” and is a platinum cast of an eighteenth century human skull covered by 8,601 diamonds. The teeth are from the original skull. It’s on display for free in a darkened exhibit space in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Room. The spotlights make it glitter in every color of the rainbow. So is this death bling really art? Hell, yeah! Turning mortality into something beautiful, gaudy, and a wee bit obscene brings up all sorts of issues, and if you don’t want to think about them you can at least enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake.

A popular piece with the crowd was “A Thousand Years,” another study of life and death. A glass vitrine holds a white box in which maggots hatch, develop into flies and feed on a cow’s head and a pool of blood. Right above the head is an Insect-o-cutor that attracts some of the flies, who get zapped and fall into a writhing pile of their dead and dying brethren. Others survive to make more maggots. The whole cycle of life and death is contained in one view.

It reminded me of the day my son was born. When my wife went into labor at the hospital the nurses wheeled her away on a gurney, leaving me to pace in the hallway until they prepped the birthing room and summoned me to “assist” with the birth. Moments after they disappeared down the hallway, another group of nurses came into view wheeling another gurney. On it lay a decrepit old man obviously in the last hours of his life.

Whoa. Ummm. . .whoa.

If Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” is art, then so was that scene in the hallway. This is the impression I got again and again from this exhibition. Hirst isn’t teaching anything you can’t learn simply by walking through life with your eyes open, and anyone who has to pay £14 ($22) to learn these lessons in an art museum probably won’t come away any wiser, so what good is this stuff?

You still might want to check this out. The retrospective is huge with dozens of works that I didn’t cover here. Some are beautiful (a stained glass window made of butterfly wings), some fall flat (a row of brightly painted cooking pans) and most leave you wondering just what the hell art is and if anybody really knows. I’m pretty sure Damien Hirst is as much in the dark about that question as I am.

“Damien Hirst” runs from April 4 to September 9, 2012.

All images © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, except “Mother and Child Divided” 2007, Photographed by Tate.

The photographer who changed the way we see the world


We’ve all seen them, those grainy series of black and white images showing animals walking or nude people climbing stairs or jumping. They’ve been used in art pieces, music videos, and are part of our visual heritage, but what are they all about?

A new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain tells the story of the photographer who took these enduring images. Eadweard Muybridge was a British immigrant to the U.S. in the 1850s. A skilled photographer, he traveled the world taking giant panoramic shots that he would then put on display, sort of an IMAX theater for Victorians. His seventeen-foot long panorama of San Francisco is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

His fame comes from his experiments with high-speed film in the 1870s. Muybridge wanted to answer the question of whether a galloping horse took all four hooves off the ground at the same time. People had been arguing about this for ages but the movement was too quick to catch with the unaided eye. Muybridge hired the Sacremento racetrack and put up a series of high-speed cameras that would be set off when the horse hit their tripwires. This technological innovation proved horses actually do leave the ground while galloping.

Muybridge became fascinated by human and animal movement and produced thousands of images. The people in his photographs are generally nude. While stuffy Victorian morality frowned on this sort of thing, since it was in the name of science Muybridge got away with it. One wonders how many of his books sold not for their scientific value, but because they contained plenty of cheesecake. He even made movies by stringing the images together on a spinning wheel called a zoopraxiscope. Muybridge was making movies twenty years before the movie camera was invented.

Muybridge at Tate Britain
runs until 16 January 2011.

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]

Celebrate the Francis Bacon centennial, starting in Madrid

Reclusive, crazy and not as prolific as most other artists, Francis Bacon produced only around 1,000 paintings before his death. Around the world, his pieces appear one or two at a time, but few have the resources or reason to assemble a large retrospective. This year, that changes.

One hundred years ago, Francis Bacon was born. For his centennial, exhibitions are rumored to be planned at London’s Tate and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But, I was surprised to see a large sign as I walked along the Paseo del Prado last week: Francis Bacon. Until April 19, 2009, you’ll be able to witness the progression of this genius’s work over four decades, with a collection of unusual breadth and depth (take a closer look here).

This is an interesting time for Francis Bacon. Last year, his work was among the hottest in the world, with Russian energy figure Roman Abramovich dropping $86.3 million on a triptych painted in 1976. Not even a full year later, the art market is in turmoil, and the auction houses are unable to move Bacon’s work, it seems, at any price. It feels like a sad undercurrent to what should be a year of celebration, but New York artist Nelson Diaz disagrees.
Diaz appears to be downright prophetic, having protested the art market’s ascent with a political statement via eBay last summer. At the time, he explained that Bacon would have been disgusted with the high prices that his work fetched. Nelson’s protest is over, but it does make rich background for what should be a year of Francis Bacon retrospectives around the world.

In the video below, Nelson explains last summer’s project and its connection to Francis Bacon. If you’re looking to the future, his latest project is “The Isolated Christ.”

Whether you stop by the Tate, Met or Museo del Prado to enjoy the Francis Bacon centennial, keep this back-story in mind. It changes everything you’ll see.

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Budget Travel: Liverpool, UK

Beautiful shot of Albert Dock by Pete Carr
Summary
: Liverpool. It’s not London, and that’s why it’s not nearly as expensive. But with the old-timey glamor of Albert Dock, a history rich with music, maritime lore, and football (soccer) glory, and a proximity to Chester and Port Sunlight Village, Liverpool is no second rate vacation destination. It’s a first rate European city and an exciting place to visit!

Getting in: The John Lennon International Airport is where it’s at. If you can’t get straight there from where you live, find a trip to Amsterdam, then EasyJet it over to Liverpool. It may take you out of your way, but the savings will likely be worth it, and taking a train from London with all your luggage is a major pain after a long flight. Plus, a layover in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport can be a pretty good time! Check out the facilities/amenities here.

Where to stay
: Gadling recommends that you stay at the Britannia Adelphi Hotel. This places you just uphill from all the best shopping and dining, near the train station (which you’ll need if you want to take day trips), and walkable to Albert Dock and the city’s cathedrals. The prices are reasonable and the rooms are lovely. There’s also a Marriott nearby if you are looking to cash in points.

What to see: Liverpool’s blue collar roots are well disguised in the trendy City Centre area. We recommend a walk down Bold Street to get you started with shopping, especially the trendy Karen Millen shop. While you’re there, you can eat a very cheap, delicious, healthy vegetarian meal at the exquisitely painted Egg Cafe (and gallery).

The Philharmonic Pub on Hope StreetReady for a pint? Head up to the Philharmonic Pub for a classy, relaxed atmosphere, and, if you can, catch whatever’s playing that night at The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall across the street! Note: The locals don’t say the “H” in Phil*H*armonic, and they will make fun of you if you do — that, or have no idea what you are talking about.

Now you’re on Hope Street. You might notice that at either end of the street, there is a giant cathedral. Visit both! The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King (Roman Catholic) looks a bit like a spaceship, or like it might impale any falling angels, but is quite lovely inside. The Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) is even grander, and definitely worth a tour (you can see all of Liverpool from the top), or at least a stroll through the lovely, probably-haunted graveyard. Hope Street also runs into Mount Street at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts where you can catch — or pick up fliers for — all kinds of local music, theater, dance, and more. LIPA was started in 1996 by Sir Paul McCartney and has been spitting out West End stars and more ever since!

If you’re a soccer fan, don’t miss a tour of the Liverpool Football Club museum and stadium. Ask at your hotel for transportation arrangements.

And naturally, if you’re a Beatles fan, don’t miss the Magical Mystery Tour! The tour is run by primary school classmates of The Beatles, and is funny, informative, and a great way to see a lot of Liverpool. It ends at the infamous Cavern Club, which is still alive and well.

Another great way to see Liverpool is the Yellow Duck Marine Tour. The guides on the duck boats are hysterical, and they take you around Albert Dock, where you can also visit a lot of Liverpool’s chicest clubs, the Tate Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, or just get your caricature drawn for a couple of pounds.

Lastly, if you want to get that posh British feeling, take a day trip to Chester. You can get there by train in about 45 minutes and spend the whole day eating crumpets, perusing parfumeries, and walking the wall that covers the entire perimeter of the city. Better still, stop in Port Sunlight Village on your way down. The village itself looks like something you might see in miniature form in a store-front display around Christmas, and it is home to The Lady Lever Art Gallery — a gallery you can totally do in a couple of hours which happens to be my personal favorite throughout the entire world. Don’t miss the basement full of Masonic artifacts.

A trip to Liverpool is worth your time, and, especially in comparison to London, really easy on your wallet!

The sounds of travel 11: Liverpool

Magical Mystery Tour busHere at Gadling we’ll be highlighting some of our favorite sounds from the road and giving you a sample of each — maybe you’ll find the same inspiration that we did, but at the very least, hopefully you’ll think that they’re good songs. Got a favorite of your own? Leave it in the comments below and we’ll post it at the end of the series.

If you’re going to England, you really ought to make a stop in Liverpool. There’s a Tate Museum (with a terrific Auerbach I particularly like), Albert Dock, from whence The Titanic departed, and a music scene you’ll never forget.

The Beatles aren’t the only band to come out of Liverpool. Here’s a list of twelve Liverpool bands from the BBC, which even they confess is “by no means an exhaustive list.” Every one has played the famous Cavern Club, which is a great place to visit, even just for a pint in the afternoon.

If you’re into new music, you’re also in luck. Not only does Liverpool continue to encourage new artists through its music-rich history and welcoming clubs, but there’s also a school there called the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which was started by Sir Paul McCartney in 1996. LIPA is farming out fresh talent to all over Europe and beyond. You can catch the students at their very own Paul McCartney Auditorium or at the local bars and clubs like The Magnet and Bar Hannah.

Beatles tourism in Liverpool is pretty commercialized, but don’t miss The Magical Mystery Tour, which is conducted by childhood friends of The Beatles themselves. They’ll have all kinds of tidbits for you, for example: Did you know that “Norweigan Wood” was originally titled “Knowing She Would,” and they changed it for the censors?

Have a listen above; it’s sure to give you a smile.

Click here for previous Sounds of Travel.