Damien Hirst was born in Bristol in 1965. He grew up in Leeds and he moved to London in 1984, working in construction before studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. He came to public attention in 1988 when he created and curated ‘Freeze’ – an exhibition of work by students at Goldsmiths now commonly acknowledged as the launch point not just for Hirst’s own career but for a whole generation of young British artists.
Hirst’s interest in exploring the ‘unacceptable idea’ of death began as a teenager, when he would regularly visit the anatomy department of Leeds Medical School to make life drawings. Since the late 1980s Hirst has used installation, sculpture, painting and drawing to explore the complex relationship between life, death and art. ‘Art’s about life and it can’t really be about anything else. There isn’t anything else.’ His work investigates and challenges contemporary belief systems, dissecting the tensions and uncertainties at the heart human experience. Hirst’s understanding of the distinction between painting and sculpture changed significantly at Goldsmiths College. The Medicine Cabinets series, which he created in his second year, combined the aesthetics of minimalism with his observation that, ‘science is the new religion…it’s as simple and as complicated as that really.’
Hirst’s work calls into question the boundaries that separate desire and fear, life and death, reason and faith, love and hate. He uses the tools and imagery of science and religion to create sculptures and paintings whose beauty and intensity transcend a familiar understanding of these domains. From his infamous shark suspended in formaldehyde – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – through his spot, spin and butterfly paintings to his more recent pieces, his work has acquired the cultural power of contemporary iconography. For the Love of God – a cast of a human skull made in platinum and encrusted with 8,601 flawless pavé set diamonds – was described by art historian Rudi Fuchs as ‘out of this world, celestial almost. Compared to the tearful sadness of a Vanitas scene, the diamond skull is glory itself.’
Of the prominence of death in his work Hirst has said, ‘You can frighten people with death…or it can actually give them vigour.’ In the thirty odd years since ‘Freeze’ Hirst has become one of the most prominent artists of his generation. Since 1987 he has had over 80 solo exhibitions worldwide and was awarded the Turner Prize in 1995. In 2004 The Agony and the Ecstasy, his first major retrospective, was held in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. In 2008 he took the unprecedented step of bypassing gallery involvement and selling over 200 new works directly through Sotheby’s. Described by Hirst as a means of democratising the art market, the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever auction followed the logic of his earlier decision to sell off the entire contents of Pharmacy, his restaurant venture in Notting Hill. Hirst’s contribution to British art over the previous twenty-five years was recognised with a major retrospective of his work staged at Tate Modern in 2012. He lives and works in London, Gloucestershire and Devon.