Stuck Inn XII: The Art Damien Hirst Stole Part 2
By Charles Thomson.
Part 1 of this article on Damien Hirst was, according to Hirst’s press spokesperson on the BBC website, “poor journalism” to which Hirst would be issuing a “comprehensive” rebuttal. I had quoted his philosophy that there was no shame in stealing other people’s ideas (the common term for which is of course plagiarism), and cited 15 examples of this. I can’t see why he would feel the need to rebut anything, as he has clearly said it is what he does and he does not see anything wrong in it. So far, the only rebuttal which has occurred, though hardly comprehensive, was in The Observer on 26 September 2010 in the following exchange:
Question: You have repeatedly been accused of plagiarism. Is there any truth to the claims?
Damien Hirst: It’s just gibberish, isn’t it? Just ridiculous. It’s nothing really.
What might be gibberish, ridiculous and nothing really for him is a different matter for others. In 2007, a friend phoned John LeKay and said, “you won’t believe what Damien has done, he is doing a skull covered in diamonds. It looks just like your work and he is selling it for 100 million dollars.” LeKay commented, “At first I thought it might be some kind of a joke, and I laughed, then I read about it on artnet. I remember feeling these mixed emotions, feeling a bit shocked, but simultaneously flattered by it, then a bit gutted and thought here we go again, even though his was different; different materials etc. I mean diamonds are much more expensive crystals than a urinal cake or Swarovski crystals, but the idea was basically the same. A skull covered with crystals.”
This is only one of a number of Hirst works with distinct similarities to those of LeKay, who says it has become impossible to show his own work, “Because now everyone who sees it now says it looks like a Damien Hirst artwork … it appears that Damien thought that when I walked away from the art world back in 95, that gave him carte blanche to take anything he wanted. Maybe he saw it as free pickings, sifting through my work like a vulture. His problem is that I’m still alive and kicking and have no intention of going away.”
LeKay was friends with Hirst in 1992 and shared ideas with him, but in retrospect considers, “It was my stupidity to allow him into my studio all those times to see my work. Should have known better.” LeKay has reconciled this through his Buddhist practice and says, “I also believe in forgiveness and karma and not dwelling in the past”.
In 2007, Los Angeles artist, Lori Precious, received a phone call from a friend, who, referring to Hirst, said, “His work looks just like yours.” The work in question — which Precious had been doing since 1994 and exhibiting in galleries and on the web — was a kaleidoscopic stained glass window effect made from butterflies. Hirst started doing the same thing in 2003. She said, “when I saw the uncanny similarity of his stained glass window pieces to my own it was an incredible and sad feeling of loss. It hurt, as if something I love had been taken.”
Legal redress was beyond her means and would quite likely have failed anyway as ideas are not copyrightable. She said, “I didn’t do any work for six months. I was in a state of shock.” She abandoned over a decade of work, realising that if she exhibited her pieces, she would have been accused of copying Hirst, whose worldwide media presence had established this way of working as his. Recently, she has observed about Hirst, “He said about some of his work that if he hadn’t done it then it wouldn’t have existed. He was the first person to do it. I say the same thing. He did not originate the idea. He did not originate the method of execution. He didn’t come up with the concept. He didn’t execute the work, so what are people buying? They are buying a name, but what is a name worth, if it is not backed up by either the hand or the idea of the artist?”
Swiss artist John Armleder, who had been doing “dot paintings” in a regular grid since the late 1970s, had the same problem as LeKay and Precious: “People would see my dot paintings and say: ‘But you’re doing a painting like Hirst.’ And I would always say: ‘Yes, I’m trying my best’ — because Hirst’s paintings are very nice, but I had been doing them a decade before.”
New Yorker Walter Robinson was not the first artist to make “spin paintings”, but was significant in establishing their presence in the art arena through the solo and group shows, where he exhibited them in the 1980s. Here again, Hirst’s celebrity status has achieved the revisionism of identifying him as the pioneer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, has acquired Hirst’s work, but not Robinson’s, which preceded it by a decade. Robinson, now editor of Artnet website, commented there, “where was the museum when I showed my beautiful, sign-painters-enamel spin paintings at Metro Pictures in SoHo in 1986?”
In 2003, Hirst put a design of spiralling spots in a Guardian colouring book for children. It was identical to True Daisy, a design by Robert Dixon, except it was attributed to Hirst. Dixon said, “By putting his signature on such a computer drawing, Hirst is falsifying authorship of the artwork and the idea.”
That kind of ethical consideration does not trouble Hirst, who has an infantile need to pretend he is the creator of what he likes with a rationale of “’Wow! I wanna do that”, regardless of consequences, as in the case of Hymn, his enlargement of a Humbrol anatomical model, about which he said, “I might even get sued for it. I expect it. Because I copied it so directly”. (He settled out of court.)
In contrast to his cavalier treatment of other people’s work, Hirst and his representatives are highly sensitive to any possible infringement of his own authorship.
In 1996, Adam Dant of the Gallerette in Shoreditch was given a “spin painting”, found by arts graduate Simon Tyrell in a skip. Dant decided to exhibit it in a show titled, “We Found a Painting by Damien Hirst in a Skip”, with the intention of questioning authenticity in art. Hirst’s agent, Jay Jopling, had no interest in such philosophical digressions, and immediately demanded the work should be disassociated from Hirst — Dant did so.
Rows of coloured spots, a.k.a. polka dots, have been a common design feature on clothes and goods since at least the mid-nineteenth century, but Hirst seemed to think that because he had used them, he could copyright them. In 1999, he issued legal threats against British Airways’ Go airline when they used them in adverts.
Simon Manchipp (now founder of London branding practice SomeOne) was head of design at advertising agency HHCL&P, when he designed the Go ads. He said, “I thought, ‘bring it on.’ Coloured dots had been used a long time before he created the spot paintings … A coloured dot is almost impossible to trademark or own outright.”
In 2004, Simon Phillips registered the website address www.damien-hirst.co.uk and ran it as a fansite. Two years later, Hirst’s lawyers demanded it should be unconditionally reassigned to Hirst, refusing to pay even a token £25 requested by Phillips, who gave in, intimidated by their heavyweight tactics.
2006 saw a spate of fake Hirsts on the market. A fake Hirst is not a Hirst not made by Hirst, of course, as Hirst does not make his own work anyway. It is a Hirst not made by Hirst which Hirst says is not a Hirst, though in all other respects it is quite possibly identical to a Hirst not made by Hirst, which Hirst says is a Hirst. One “expert” commented, “If people can’t rely on what they think they’re buying, they’ll stop buying his work.” One of the “fakes” was of the print, Valium, the spot design of which in the “fake” and the “original” is a copy of True Daisy by Robert Dixon.
In 2008, Rupert Bound, who had made “spin paintings” in Hirst’s factory with authorship credited to Hirst, made another two with authorship credited to Bound. He exhibited them in the Morgan Boyce Gallery in Marlborough and referred to his previous work for Hirst. The police confirmed they were investigating complaints by Bound that he had consequently received abusive text messages and angry phone calls from key Hirst employee, Bradley Hirst, Hirst’s younger brother, who apparently accused Bound of exploiting Hirst’s “distinctive” way of painting.
In 2009, Cartrain, a 16 year old graffiti artist, made collages which incorporated images of For the Love of God, Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. Hirst, via DACS (The Design and Artists Copyright Society), forced Cartrain to hand over not only the remaining collages but also the £200 which he had made to date on sales.
A few weeks later, the website redragtoabull.com appeared with multiple images featuring Hirst’s skull, created by Jimmy “I burnt £1 million” Cauty, Jamie Reid (punk designer for the Sex Pistols and a Hirst hero), and Billy Childish. Cauty, spoiling for a fight, said, “Unlike Cartrain and his gallery, we are not intimidated by lawyers”. Hirst did nothing. The profits from the redragtoabull site were presented to Cartrain.
In contrast to this energetically pro-active approach (at least against those without the resources to stand up to him), the response of Hirst and his camp to complaints against him is usually evasive, with newspaper articles typically quoting the comment “not available for comment” or “no comment”.
Lori Precious said her calls to the Gagosian Gallery were not returned. John LeKay, being at one time a close friend of Hirst’s, had direct access and phoned him up. LeKay said, “He answered the phone (his private home number which I had), but awkwardly and uncomfortably said it wasn’t him. I recognised his distinctive voice and northern accent. This was around 2001–2. Not long after the 9/11 incident. It was a little weird because I thought he was joking at first by pretending it wasn’t him, so I started laughing, after I told him who I was twice”. Hirst hung up.
In 2006, LeKay emailed Hirst, asking to do an interview, and received an image of one of Hirst’s new works from his secretary. Astonishingly the Hirst piece was In the Name of the Father, a crucified sheep — exactly the same thing as LeKay’s own work of 1987.
On 14 October 2010, Christie’s in London staged an evening sale of post-war and contemporary art, which included a large butterfly kaleidoscope work by Damien Hirst titled I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds (2006). I staged a demonstration outside the King Street premises in St James with a handful of fellow Stuckist artists and placards with texts such as “Damien Hirst plagiarist — copies of another artist’s work on sale here”, drawing attention to Lori Precious’s butterfly work. Immediately after our arrival, an official emerged from Christie’s and thought he owned the public highway, telling us we had ten minutes and then would be leaving. He was going to make sure this happened. After he pushed me, I phoned the police to report common assault and threatening behaviour.
The Hirst work performed poorly, selling at £1.9 million against an estimate of £2.5 – 3.5 million (all excluding buyer’s premium, which is usually in media reports added to the sale price and omitted from the estimate, thus making the poor performance seem not quite as bad). Even that low price is ludicrously inflated and a testament to the corruption of the artworld, which enables those with institutional and media power to hoodwink ignorant, rich people into paying excessive amounts for Hirst’s derivative work, while the true originators are denied the recognition they deserve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Thomson was the only person in 10 years to fail the painting degree at Maidstone College of Art. In 1979, he was a founder member of The Medway Poets, and then a full-time poet for 13 years, with work in over 100 anthologies. In 1999 he named, co-founded and has since been the driving force of the Stuckism movement, which now numbers more than 200 groups in 48 countries. He has demonstrated for 10 years outside the Turner Prize, and in 2005 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for Tate trustee minutes about the gallery’s purchase of its trustee Chris Ofili’s work. This led in 2006 to the Charity Commission’s ruling that the Tate had been acting illegally for the last 50 years. His painting satirising Sir Nicholas Serota, whose face peers over a large pair of (Tracey Emin’s) red knickers, is a well-known image. He was briefly married to artist Stella Vine in 2001.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 9th, 2011.