Hirst : The Tuber

Damien Hirst’s Verity, Ilfracombe

The Angel of the North has been one of the flagships around public art for a long time now and Verity has been hailed as the angel of the South, but I for one was skeptical of the intentions of Verity, or moreover Hirst.

In idea it felt like another marketing ploy by the commercial goliath that is the Hirst empire. In physicality, on first impression, it felt like my assumptions were correct. A blustery grey day couldn’t hide the caricature-like face of Verity, something mimicking Hirst’s obsession with the children’s anatomical mannequin.

Personally, I was surprised to find out that Hirst himself proposed the work to North Devon Council, this was no council-funded money-throwing commission. The work is on a 20-year loan, during which the council will pay for the maintenance of the surrounding plinth. Is he investing into the local economy? How does the context play into his artistic decision-making? Am I selling him short on my assumption of this being a purely economical piece of work? Does the question of artistic merit even need to be considered within the oeuvre of an artist we have all accepted as being the Warhol of our age?

One thing that stood out to me upon arriving to see Verity for the first time (it must be said, I took the trip specifically from Exeter to see her) is that even on a horrible ‘spring’ day, there were fellow pilgrims parking up and scoping out her stance.

Interested (or at least curious) audiences aside, Verity slowly grew to convince me of her reason for being. I expected her to be lacking in any interest, but I found her pose and situation ambiguous and provoking. She is pregnant, naked, half de-clothed of skin (in the Hirst anatomical model style), stood on a pile of esoteric law books, whilst holding the scales of justice behind her back and brandishing her sword skywards, no blindfold in sight. This is aggression from a neutral face, a scientifically abstracted human form with the intention of the American Psycho. It’s symbolically blunt, but the outcome of this symbolism and it’s context leaves me lost in it’s translation. This is lady justice with nothing to hide and no shame. She has future in her womb, but will face out from the harbour of Ilfracombe, war-like with blank expression. Justice is hidden, like crossed fingers behind your back when making a pinky promise. This is the feminine portrayed as the anti-thesis of what some celebrate in their advocacy of the virtues of femininity. It leaves me feeling that if this is the position we as a species are now in, there is nowhere to hide. Gormley eat your heart out, almost literally if you want to compete on these terms. This is public art denying a public, with no aim of offering recompense and no attempt to be taken seriously.

From here I stumble into the town, spotting two Hirst enterprises within a stones throw of Verity: a gallery and a Pharmacy-copy called The Quay. Both are high fashion and attract the wannabe glitterati - everything I despise about the art world, all in one place.

It’s hard not to be skeptical and believe that this is an economic project: make a controversial public sculpture, stick it in a flagging seaside town, and then juice the tourism. Where I fall down the rabbit-hole is in the questioning of where the problem is with this intention. If it drives the economy in Ilfracombe (which it has) what is wrong with this? I’m sure that is number one on the list of most struggling councils when commissioning public sculpture. Most of these artworks aim at high impact and popularity using long-lasting materials; high return for minimum effort. Hirst has loaned the artwork and is now investing his money (it is his money whether we like it’s source or not) to develop a town built on the same kind of intention. Need I remind, The Tunnels Beaches were hand-dug by unemployed Welsh miners, as much an exploitation of cheap labour as a philanthropic gesture. The Victorians were cutthroat businessmen too afterall, and their Great Exhibition wasn’t built on savouring beauty or culture for it’s own sake. It draws me back to the aim of art in public space: is it there to be critical, to attract audiences, to give identity, or just to make the place look pretty?

Personally I am torn on this, Britain needs to become proud and innovative in it’s place-making once again and I believe art can lead the way in doing this. Whether it’s from the Goliaths of the globe or the minions earning nothing, it’s grinding the wheel of culture forwards.
As to whether it stands as an artistic success I’m perched on the fence, but I speculatively hold my own foam sword bought from the Ilfracombe tourist shop near The Quay aloft. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but like the Mastaba being developed by Christo in Dubai, it isn’t sugar-coating what it is or why it stands. Ethics aside, I think the context chosen shows a man of true taste, no matter how the ‘work’ is accepted.