Thursday, 22 December 2011

On Skulls: Part 6

Luxury and Commodity

There is no doubt that For the Love of God has a brilliant surface. Its employment of expensive materials would seem to comment on the designer cult of luxury goods and the status afforded to artworks as highly desirable commodities. Thomas Crow, writing in a recent issue of Artforum devoted to critical analysis of the global art market (which not insignificantly featured For the Love of God as its cover image) discusses the effect of commoditization on the work of art:
While commoditization offers advantages to purchasers in many markets, in that they can pit producers against one another, it is to the advantage of neither the buyer nor the seller of art, who share a common interest in the perceived incomparability of the product. (Artforum  XLVI, No. 8 p.287)

As artworks increasingly seem to occupying the position of unique and thus ultimately desirable products (popular discussion of art in the mass media focuses chiefly on sale prices for works rather than any consideration of meaning or artistic/cultural value – all the headlines for Hirst’s work mentioned the price), Hirst could be attempting to immunize his work against ultimate assimilation by market forces. In taking on the materials of wealth, the work seeks to surpass a purely financial value, whilst at the same time confronting a society obsessed with wealth, luxury and materialism with its own warped reflection.
In 21st Century Western consumer culture apparent luxury has become, ironically, ubiquitous. Whether through fake goods flooding the market, or through the exponentially-increasing realm of the spectacle (advertising, virtual images, etc.), the desirably expensive is everywhere. But in its proliferation, luxury diminishes. As it is democratized, it is robbed of its essence. As journalist Dana Thomas writes in her book Deluxe:
The luxury industry has…realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history, and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury “accessible,” tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special. Luxury has lost its luster. (Thomas, 2007, p. 13)

Like so much of contemporary life, the appearance and substance of the luxuriously desirable have become highly disconnected. Luxury brands no longer promote products, instead they sell a dream, a fiction of an idealised and impossible lifestyle. Because the allure of the luxurious chiefly resides in its unobtainability, when it is brought near its mirage disappears, like the moon in the bucket or the end of the rainbow. It is the prize which, by its very nature, cannot be grasped.

Damien Hirst Death Explained 2007
Conclusion: The Physical Impossibility of Death Etc. in the Midst of Life

Contemporary society’s zeal in embracing the luxurious is perhaps rivalled only by its ardour in seeking to avoid or deny the limits of mortality. Cemeteries have been moved from city centres to the outskirts. Accidents, pain and death are hushed and hidden from normal view, sterilized and officiated by professionals.
In such a culture, the reality of death is kept largely at bay, mediated instead by television, where it is omnipresent, though pulled of its teeth through continental divide and fictionalization[1]. Damien Hirst himself has commented, some years prior to the making of the skull:
‘I am going to die and I want to live forever. I can’t escape the fact and I can’t let go of the desire.’ (Hirst/Shani, 2003)

In turning to the skull as a focus for artworks, contemporary artists such as Hirst, Gregory, Swallow and Cooke – to name but a few – would seem to be confronting at some level our culture’s attitude to death and the consequent approach to living which this engenders. In combining the skull motif with the costliest of materials, For the Love of God acts as an ostensible (if somewhat obvious) reminder that luxury is used by many as a distraction from mortality. The skull as symbol has become highly complicated, located within an intricate mesh of cultural and sub-cultural references. The artists referred to here all appropriate this motif on two significant levels – the memento mori or vanitas emblem, and the popular cultural icon with its many guises and subtle inflexions of meaning – from jolly rogers to biker regalia, from heavy metal album covers to ironic skateboard graphics and kids t-shirt designs.
Correspondingly, artworks employing this device can be read referentially, pointing us to a historical concept of vanitas meaning, in the manner of Sterling and Saxl, or they can be viewed as simulacral – detached from original meaning and referring ironically only to other signs, as the ideas of Baudrillard, Bal and Bryson have shown. Following Foster’s idea of the ‘traumatic real’, and considering For the Love of God within the context of Hirst’s broader practice, it has been argued that a third reading of the piece is also possible – one that allows at once both honest reference to the vanitas and ironic evasion of serious meaning through the reappropriation of the skull as traumatic object[2].  The diamonds which cover the piece highlight the plight of the artwork as commodity (as Warhol presciently predicted), and invoke the cult of luxury, making the piece an archly materialist talisman. As Hirst comments of his motivation to make the work:
 'I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death. What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence?’ (O’Hagan, The Observer 26/05/06)

As demonstrated through reference to related artworks, the concept for Hirst’s skull is by no means unique. In fact, its antecendents go back thousands of years. What makes this example different is its positioning at the heart of the oeuvre that Damien Hirst has created for himself. He is able to execute such a work more ostentatiously, more opulently than perhaps any other living artist, and the piece relies on this ostentation for its impact. Many would hold that this work, like much of Hirst’s practice, is sheer posturing, of only headline value. Whilst there is no denying that it has this aspect, and Hirst relishes it, we should be careful not to miss a more subtle level at play here, to throw the shark out with the formaldehyde, so to speak. Along with the irony, the apparent evasion of meaning, this work also seeks to engage a kind of fundamental truth, which is more closely bound up with its own physicality as object.
If the artist’s role is to hold the mirror to their culture, Hirst’s mirror has a gilt frame, but is no less profound for all that.

[1] The exhibition Beyond Belief which contained For the Love of God interestingly also contained a follow-up to Hirst’s earlier infamous The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which comprised a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde solution. The new piece was entitled Death Explained, and featured a similar shark, this time bisected and held in two facing tanks, allowing the viewer to walk between them, and inspect the embalmed mechanics of the shark’s digestive system – literally to take a view which is made possible only through the animal’s death and thus confirm its demise at the level of spectacle (See Jaques Lacan’s The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze and Anamorphosis in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis).

[2] The fact that the skull employed here is a replica made in platinum is not important to this point. Hirst originally intended using the original skull, and its removal from the final artwork was primarily a practical decision. Indeed, the teeth used in the piece are authentic.

Friday, 16 December 2011

On Skulls: Part 5

Andy Warhol Skull 157 1976
The Traumatic Real

It has been attempted thus far to present two somewhat contrasting readings of Hirst’s piece; the first, exemplified by the ideas of Sterling, Saxl and to some extent Panofsky, would locate the work as part of a long symbolic tradition of memento mori. Thus it can be viewed as pointing to ideas of mortality and the futility of wealth, to the ancient theme of death having the last laugh. This could be called a referential reading.
However, under a simulacral reading, as discussed above, the work refers only to an ever-receding network of signs in a visually overloaded culture – any real meaning is dissipated in myriad cultural, sub-cultural and pop-cultural associations.
Faced with these two opposing viewpoints, it would seem that they are mutually exclusive – either the work refers to meaning outside of itself, or it is ultimately closed to authentic reference – both cannot be entertained simultaneously. Or can they?

In his essay The Return of the Real Hal Foster argues as much in relation to Andy Warhol’s Death in America series. Foster claims that these works at once permit both readings through a third reading, which he terms ‘traumatic realism’. Viewed thus, Warhol becomes
One who takes on the nature of what shocks him as a mimetic defence against this shock. (Foster, 1996, p.131)

Using ideas rooted in the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, Foster posits Warhol as a traumatised subject who uses the blankness of repetition to disturb, ultimately to point the viewer toward the Real, a sort of fundamental presence or existence which threatens the subject with annihilation even as it beckons them with the core of their own nature. Contemporary artists are similarly caught in a schizophrenic pull between the breakdown of the referential order and the primordial horror of what might lay behind it:
Here artists are drawn not to the highs of the simulacral image but to the lows of the depressive object. If some high modernists sought to transcend the referential figure and some early postmodernists to delight in the sheer image, some later postmodernists want to possess the real thing. (Ibid. p.165)

Portrait of Andy Warhol
For this latter group of artists, Foster claims, truth resides in the traumatic or abject subject, particularly in the damaged body. The ultimately true subject is the corpse. The dead or wounded body is thus taken up by artists as a focus for work in a desperate attempt to re-engage the Real.
One does not need look far for trauma and death in Damien Hirst’s work. It is there in the embalmed and dissected animals, in the tragically beautiful butterflies stuck to the surface of canvasses like jewels, in the photorealist paintings depicting accidents and operations, and of course, in the trademark skulls. Following Foster, this work, including For the Love of God, can be read as simultaneously occupying two apparently contrary positions; the ironic and the genuine. In using the skulls, animal parts and scenes of death, Hirst, like Warhol, is saying ‘It hurts, I can’t feel anything’ (Ibid. p.166).

Comparing Hirst and Warhol seems fitting: both have orchestrated their own careers to dizzying heights. Both have become media superstars, grabbing the limelight and making their lives as colourful as their works. Both have used the language of their contemporary culture to talk about wealth, about banality, about death. Both seem fascinated by the opaque reflectivity of the shining surface of the mass-produced, and about the darker secret that might lurk beneath it.

Douglas Gordon - Forty

Monday, 12 December 2011

On Skulls: Part 4

Willem Kalf Still Life with Nautilus Cup 1662

Abundance and Lack

In his essay Abundance in the volume Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson considers the ostentatious pronk still life pieces of Willem Kalf, one of the most well-known proponents of the Dutch still life tradition. His sumptuously laden tables are crammed with exotic foods and costly treasures, all rendered in superb detail. The extreme opulence of the paintings, both in their depiction and construction seems to border on the polemical. However, in discussing such works, Bryson suggests that whilst seeming to exemplify wealth, the meticulous painting of luxurious objects actually creates a diminuition of meaning – nothing can be added to the value of such objects, and so Kalf’s masterful rendering of them ultimately creates a lack:
If these objects are already masterpieces, why should they be repeated in a second masterpiece? The duplication of elaborative work begins to point to a process that is as endless as it is without reason; the replica indicates a deficiency in the original object that will not be remedied by the supplement, but contaminates it and so to speak hollows it out. (Bryson, 1990, p.126)

Richness increases until it reaches a critical mass; the wealth of the object coupled with the wealth of the meticulous painting results, Bryson suggests, in symbolic emptiness. He seems to be regarding Kalf’s work as examples of simulacra – signs that, for semioticians like Jean Baudrillard, are cut off from reference to original meaning, and refer only to other signs.


In Symbolic Exchange and Death Baudrillard discusses this effect of the transition from the era of the obligatory sign (that which has a universal reading and a hierarchical order) to that of the counterfeit. The counterfeit sign, by contrast with its obligatory predecessor, is multiple, unrelated to any sort of original sign and free-floating. Such signs have an appearance of meaning, but can never convey what they portend:
The modern sign dreams of its predecessor, and would dearly love to rediscover an obligation in its reference to the real. This designatory bond, however, is only a simulacrum of symbolic obligation, producing nothing more than neutral values which are exchanged one for the other in an objective world. (Baudrillard, 1993, p.51)

Baudrillard’s ‘modern sign’ is one that has become detached from its original referent  and instead refers to the referent of an earlier chain of signification, a sort of semiotic paper trail that leads only to a regression of clues. This could be thought of in terms of Charles Sanders Peirce’s idea of ‘unlimited semiosis’. In this process, an object (o) forms a referent (r) that is received by the subject as an interpretant (i). This interpretant can then become in turn the referent for a new chain of signification, and so on, open to endless continuation.
As noted above in the example of Nigel Cooke’s paintings, the effect of this could be translated as irony – an inability to access meaning on any original or actual level.
Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson discuss in a related way how the order of signs is open to a multiplicity of readings when applied to Art History. Here, the artwork as sign is anything but a static object with a clear and unchanging framework of meaning:
Derrida, in particular, insisted that the meaning of any particular sign could not be located in a signified fixed by the internal operations of a synchronic system; rather, meaning arose exactly from the movement from one sign or signifier to the next, in a perpetuum mobile where there could be found neither a starting point for semiosis, nor a concluding moment in which semiosis terminated and the meanings of signs fully ‘arrive’. (Bal & Bryson in Preziosi, ed. 1998, p.247)

Seen in this way, the reception and interpretation of a sign is a fragile and shifting thing, which fundamentally involves the subject in the process of communication. Its meaning is not fixed and static, just as the history of signs of which it is a part is not closed to change. Each new employment of a motif alters the entire fabric of the tradition, thus the contemporary example changes the reading of that from antiquity. When this view is applied to artworks, it presents us with a model of an ongoing dialogue, the focus of which is constantly evolving, whilst continually referring to past moments.
The skull as a motif in art is arguably ancient, and it appears to have always evoked ideas of the vanitas or memento mori. But for Derrida each moment of art  takes such devices and make of them something new, something which relates specifically to that particular time and culture, as well as referring (if obliquely) to meanings associated with other ages. As Arthur C. Danto argues, the function and definition of an artwork is something which holds a mirror up to a culture, to reveal characteristics not normally perceived by those inhabiting it[1].
Similarly, to apply Baudrillard’s idea of the counterfeit sign, the skull motif central to For the Love of God cannot, in its contemporary context, function as a signifier of any genuine ideas of vanitas or mortality in a traditional sense. It can only invoke them in name or appearance – they are bypassed ironically.

[1] See Arthur C. Danto The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art

Friday, 9 December 2011

On Skulls: Part 3

The Skull as Motif in Contemporary Art

 Ricky Swallow iMan Prototypes pigmented resin 2001

Hirst’s appropriation of the human skull as a motif in artwork is by no means an isolated case. Even a cursory glance around the contemporary art world will furnish numerous examples. As the artist Steven Gregory comments regarding his own work, which features human skulls heavily:
I don’t want to be the guy who does the skulls. It seems there’s a big fashion for them at the moment (Higgins, The Guardian May 2nd 2008)

Gregory’s own work bears a striking resemblance to Hirst’s, involving actual human skulls encrusted with semi-precious stones. These skulls do in fact pre-date For the Love of God, Hirst himself having bought some of the pieces from Gregory in 2002. When asked whether he saw this as mimicry, Gregory dismissed the question by pointing to the ancient example of 7,000 year old Aztec decorated skulls. Hirst too found inspiration in such historic artifacts, as his concept sketches for For the Love of God state.

This ‘fashion’ for skulls can in part be explained by the ongoing concern with popular culture as a focus for art, Andy Warhol’s 1960s series of screen-printed skulls being perhaps the forerunner to the trend. Since the 1990s in Britain, this has taken the form of a punk-like rebellious spirit in contemporary artworks, particularly in the YBA movement, exemplified by the likes of Jake & Dinos Chapman and Hirst himself.

Justin Paton picks up on this trend in his discussion of the work of young Australian artist Ricky Swallow, who has been based in London for several years:
Swallow has been attracted especially to the anarchic, undead energy that skulls and skeletons exude in popular culture, from the hipster zombies and skeletons in any number of rock videos to the hell-raising, die-hard skaters on Powell Peralta skateboard decks, which he places ‘among the most stubborn images in my subliminal source book.’ (Paton, 2004, p.68)

Swallow’s work has regularly used the human skull as its focus and is obsessively crafted, even deceptively so. The skulls in his pieces are often combined with corporate identity. His iMan Prototypes (2001) consisted of skulls cast in resin with the colours and detailing of Apple’s distinctive iMac computers.  We the Sedimentary Ones/Use Your Illusions Vol. 1-60 (2000) saw the skull miniaturised and cast sixty times in pigmented resin, the resulting objects being attached to key rings and presented as if in a souvenir shop. For Everything is Nothing (2003), he carved a life-size skull from jelutong wood, encased in a wooden track-suit hood emblazoned with the distinctive logo of sportswear giant Adidas.
This sense of branding when connected with the human skull could be seen to evoke the ubiquitous corporatisation of modern life, an arena in which even the body can become a site for advertising. To quote Paton once more:
We are dealing with a sculptor obsessed by objects, and skulls, by outlasting us, make it clearer than any other object that we are objects too. (Ibid. p. 68)

This merging of the skull as vanitas reminder with the cold objectivisation of the marketplace seems to be echoed in Damien Hirst’s work. The combination of this sober, gruesome, rebellious, fashionable icon with the most opulently expensive materials is by no means coincidental. Indeed, For the Love
of God taps into a current trend for high-end jewellery which references rock culture, with the skull as a central device. ‘Why are stylish women suddenly wearing the most gruesome of trinkets?’ asks a recent article in The Times LuxxMagazine.[1] The article goes on to examine the large number of
contemporary jewellers  who are using skulls and other similar emblems in expensive designer pieces, noting
‘There is a kind of romance about this look, as well as shades of Victorian memento mori…but this is not a pastiche, it is a modern look.’ (Reardon, The Times Luxx 08/03/08)
The skull has also found its way into the work of many contemporary painters. British painter Nigel Cooke has been using the device in various guises for many years – from the rock face covered with creepers that form a large death’s head (Silver Morosa 2003) to the grinning pumpkin skull (Morning Is Broken 2006), to the numerous small skulls-as-objects which litter the floor of many of his larger works. Darian Leader writes of this feature of Cooke’s work:
Motifs of life and death are present both as explicit icons and as compositional tensions, to make of these works modern variants on the vanitas theme. (Leader, 2006, p.38)

Ricky Swallow Everything is Nothing carved jelutong wood & milliput 2003

In the curious netherworld of Cooke’s paintings, objects are both inanimate and anthropomorphised, sometimes acting as mise-en-scene, at others becoming characters in the paintings. More recently, his work has involved a lot of rhetorical reference to art-historical tradition, and the romantic concept of the painter epitomised by the popular image of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh. Within this world the skull features as a reference to still life motif. In the work New Accursed Art Club (2008) a group of bearded painters congregate in a dreary urban wasteland. They engage in heroic artistic pursuits (painting from life, drinking, reading weighty books, urinating) amongst a jumble of detritus. On a sloping walkway to their left, a small skull lies obliquely on its side, striking in its bold painting which contrasts with the muted hazy grey of the background.
Compositionally anchored into the central action through the line of gaze of the micturating artist, the skull arrests the viewer’s regard as it sweeps across the panoramic canvas. It’s placing and angle suggest association with the famous memento mori of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, thus evoking the atavistic function of art to remind us of our mortality.
As Cooke’s paintings attempt to connect the world of contemporary painting with the art of history, so his use of skulls reminds us that whilst they may be fashionable, the trend has a long and distinguished precedent. However, this relationship in Cooke’s work, as in much of that mentioned above, is far from straightforward. Whilst the canon of art history is constantly referenced here, it is done so ironically, knowingly, tongue-in-cheek, as if no one for a second would believe that such references were being invoked in a serious, heavyweight way. So whilst Leader’s comment can be taken seriously to some extent – Cooke’s work does ostensibly make connections with the theme of the vanitas – we must be wary of taking this too literally. Because the theme is accessed and contextualized through the interface of popular culture (as it collides with its classical counterpart), the actual ideas for which the references are shorthand are kept at arms length; they are bypassed through over-familiarity. In semiotic terms they could be seen as simulacral, referring only to other signs. This will be examined more closely in what follows.

Nigel Cooke New Accursed Art Club oil on canvas 2008

 Steven Gregory Midnight Rambler human skull, jet, pearls, diamond 2008

[1] Dangerous Jewellery Kate Reardon, The Times Luxx Magazine 08.03.08

Thursday, 8 December 2011

On Skulls: Part 2

 Vanitas Vanitatum Omnia Vanitas

 Mors Omnia Aquat, Pompeian mosaic 1st Century BC 

The popular notion of the vanitas object is that it represents a reminder of the frailty of life amongst its pleasures and achievements, ostensibly to provoke the viewer to sober reflection on the human condition. The Crystal Reference Encyclopedia gives the following definition of vanitas:
 A type of still-life picture, produced mainly in Leyden in the 17th Century, in which symbolic objects such as skulls, hour-glasses, and old books are arranged to remind us that life is short and uncertain. The name comes from the Bible (Eccles 1.2): vanitas vanitatum (‘vanity of vanities’).
For the Love of God is, on the surface at least, an example par excellence of the vanitas icon. It combines in one object both the lure of earthly riches, and the sober reminder of the brevity of life on earth.
It is the economy of this gesture that makes the skull such an evocative object. Each skull is ultimately unique, yet all particular examples are linked by the archetype of the common form: everyone has one, and everyone recognizes and identifies in some way with the skull motif. It expresses the universal in the particular[1], and thus seems to function as a symbol that is at once semantically minimal and physically ostentatious.

The theme of the vanitas (and by extension, the skull motif) arguably has its roots in antiquity; Charles Sterling points to mosaic examples (under the guise of the Mors Omnia Aquat) recovered from the ruins of Pompeii[2]. A development of the device can then be sketched, in Sterling’s historiographic tradition, until reaching its full and familiar fruition in the virtuosic still life renderings of the Dutch masters.
Fritz Saxl, in his lecture Continuity and Variation in the Meaning of Images demonstrated how such motifs could be seen to progress, disappear and re-appear through civilizations, crossing the boundaries of continents and centuries:
Images with a meaning peculiar to their own time and place, once created, have a magnetic power to attract other ideas into their sphere…they can suddenly be forgotten and remembered again after centuries of oblivion. (Saxl, 1970, p.14)


Adriaen van Utrecht Still Life with a Bouquet and Skull oil on canvas 1643

Thus an icon or popular motif can effectively evolve, and is heavily dependent on cultural context for its received meaning. The image of the skull can be seen to emerge and develop at various points in the history of culture, apparently with a broadly comparable received meaning. However, as developments in twentieth- century theory have shown, transmission of symbolic meaning is no simple matter, and the mechanisms by which it does so are problematic and shifting.

Iconography, the methodology of reading works of art as palimpsest-like layerings of finely nuanced meaning was exemplified by Erwin Panofsky, whose analysis for a long time dominated the discipline. Panofsky emphasized the importance of context in reading works of art, he positing the work as standing at the centre of, and being inseparable from, an intricate web of cultural, historical and social interstices that are vital to its reception. As Donald Preziosi writes:

The Panofsky analysis makes it clear that the meaning of the work is a complex function of its position in a field of cultural production. (Preziosi, 1998, p. 232)

Panofsky’s work on iconography arguably contributed much to the development of modern semiotics, the study of signs, and in particular to a semiotics of art, and as such has had a vast impact on contemporary interpretation.
This study will consider Damien Hirst’s piece from several perspectives; as an object, as a symbol and as a sign. These categories are of course rarely exclusive, and much of this discussion will inevitably involve several of them simultaneously. In juxtaposing and at times contrasting theoretical perspectives, it is intended to suggest a practical reading of For the Love of God.
Before proceeding further with this analysis, it is useful to briefly look at the iconographic context of the work by examining some recent examples of the skull in the practice of other artists .

[1] The function of symbol and allegory is usefully discussed by Hanneke Grootenboer in The Rhetoric of Perspective as the following quote demonstrates:
(Goethe and Schelling) considered allegory as a discursive sign that refers to something else and essentially deals with content. By contrast, they argued, the symbol deals with form and really is that which it represents. They conceived the symbol as a representation of an idea, through which the particular expresses the universal, while they understood allegory as the representation of a concept that deploys universal signs to voice the particular. (Grootenboer, 2005, p. 152)

[2] See Charles Sterling Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present Time trans. James Emmons 1959

Friday, 2 December 2011

On Skulls: Part 1

Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God

Something of a sensation was caused by the unveiling of Damien Hirst’s 2007 work For the Love of God, a platinum cast of a human skull covered with over 8,000 flawless pavé diamonds. Admired and lambasted in equal measure, Hirst’s move would seem to be a fair summation of his career, marked as it has been by thematic concerns of belief, shock, beauty and death[1].

The skull was presented as the centre-piece of Hirst’s solo exhibition Beyond Belief which at the White Cube gallery in London in 2007. 

On visiting the exhibition, I found that the theatrical presentation and media-hyped glamour of the experience were central to the work’s effect. After acquiring a ticket, queuing, being searched and leaving bags in an ante room, a group of us were let in for a strict two minute viewing. The object glittered brilliantly in its cubic vitrine, the only feature in the pitch black room, with spotlights concealed so that it seemed as if the skull itself were the only light source.
Damien Hirst For the Love of God platinum skull, diamonds, human teeth  2007
The sense of anticipation as we crowded at the glass suggested a quasi-religious experience – as if we were at an ancient holy place, seeing at last with our own eyes the true relic, until we were called out and the next group of faithful ushered in. Indeed, the work in no small measure invites comparison with a religious artifact; its suggestion of physical residue (like the bone of a saint), its totemic symbolism, its employment of costly materials (prompting associations of gilt and lapis lazuli) giving it a decidedly numinous quality.
There was no doubt that the effect on the viewer was dramatic. But leaving the exhibit I pondered exactly what had been so impressive. Was it the sobering reminder of death behind the façade of wealth? Was this diamond encrusted skull a poignant embodiment of the vanitas theme for the contemporary world? Was there substance to reward critical investigation behind the hype or was it just the latest episode in the headline-grabbing career of the infamous Hirst, the erstwhile enfant terrible of the British artworld?

The following tentative exploration of these questions will attempt to draw out several themes: Firstly, the significance and function of the skull as a symbolic device and contrasting ways in which it could be read critically, secondly, the concept of luxury and the placement of Hirst’s work as luxury object, and finally, ideas of death in our contemporary western culture.

[1] Rudi Fuchs discusses the themes of Hirst’s work in relation to the skull in his catalogue essay Victory Over Decay published in For the Love of God (Other Criteria/White Cube 2007)