Damien Hirst is testing the waters, and he has decided that it’s best to experiment on himself.
The artist is staging his first solo exhibition in the huge space that is the Newport Street Gallery in South East London.
It’s his own gallery space but the exhibitions that have been held there, all free to the public, have only ever included a couple of his own works, the rest of the rooms used for other artists.
But these are strange times and he wants to see how many people will want to venture out to an exhibition, how safe they’ll feel in this Pandemic world.
It’s best to try this out with myself rather than subject another artist to the chance that the visitors simply won’t be there, he says. But of course they’re very likely to come.
This is Damien Hirst, one of Britain’s most famous living artists, who introduced us to sharks in formaldehyde and spot paintings, while making headlines in the arts world, dividing opinion and becoming very rich.
End of a Century deals with the 80s and 90s leading up to 2000, the early period when he was a student at Goldsmith’s and then burst onto the scene as one of the Young British Artists, winning a Turner prize, tearing up the rule book while horrifying traditionalists.
The exhibition features some pieces that have never been exhibited in a gallery before - they’re mainly ones that didn’t sell, he says, but "I’m glad that I kept them".
Hanging up by one of the famous spot paintings, grids of coloured circles he began creating in the 80s, is Up, Up and Away, three cases with ducks in flight and in formaldehyde which reminds one of Hilda Ogden’s lounge in Coronation Street.
Hirst explains his thinking behind new exhibition
The first thing you see when you walk into the gallery is Myth, Explored, Explained, Exploded, a shark split into three cases. In the neighbouring room is the famous bronze man Hymn, a giant anatomical statue that was the subject of a lawsuit.
Some of the works are not for the faint hearted - there is giant case with flies swarming around a cow’s head. There is the infamous early picture of him with an actual human head, taken in a mortuary.
There are the pieces with an extra resonance today - the racks of medicine and individual tablets, and one piece Arts About Life, The Art World Is About Money, never exhibited before, is about the disillusionment he felt with the concept of art simply as an investment, something to sell as a profit rather than to show and enjoy.
He is saddened by the decision of the Royal Opera House to sell a Hockney painting it owns to raise money after the financial hit caused by the pandemic. I expect other cultural organisations will feel forced to follow suit. He wouldn’t like it to happen to any of his works though he accepts bills have to be paid.
"The only thing that would really upset me," he says, is if people "sell my pictures to buy a handbag".
He is often reported to be Britain’s richest living artist, and what is staggering is how prolific is he was in those early years, as shown in this exhibition, all the works done before he was 34. Are any for sale? I ask.
"No," comes the reply, from the one time Young British Artist, now "Old British Artist," as he puts it. And he is already thinking about his next body of work. The good thing about being an artist he says, is you can carry on until you “lose the plot”. And even then you can still make art.