Damien Hirst, the Art World's Shark Man, Is Still in the Swim

By John Pancake
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 10, 2009

KIEV, Ukraine -- Almost 20 years after he first created it, Damien Hirst's "A Thousand Years" still has the power to shock: a sleek steel and glass box containing a severed cow's head, a pool of blood, live maggots and flies, sugar, water and an Insect-O-Cutor that electrocutes unwary insects after they've gorged on flesh.

Hirst is about as big as anybody in the art world, and perhaps the most important of the young artists who wrenched British art off its stodgy hinges in the '90s. No surprise, then, that the late-April opening here of his first major retrospective was a glamorous affair featuring art-world stars Jeff Koons and photographer Andreas Gursky, Paul Simonon of the Clash and actor Daniel "Bond, James Bond" Craig. At the behest of billionaire Victor Pinchuk, Ukraine's richest man and a major Hirst collector, the artist brought in 100 works, including 40 new paintings.

Now, several days into the show, the glitterati have jetted home and a shiny black pile of thousands of fly corpses fills the zapper's tray in front of Ukrainians like Nastya Saksman, a slender 16-year-old student. On a recent afternoon, the crowd in the Pinchuk Art Center, where admission is free, is mostly open and curious. More than two-thirds are young women. And, like many of those lining up to see the show, Saksman says she finds the art intriguing: "The world is cruel, and this is a picture of real cruelty. It makes you think."

Others are merely alarmed. Nina Assaul, 48, a housewife, says she is "shocked and on the verge of tears looking at this. It's as if the world has gone mad."

The works include a sheep and a calf, each in its own glass case filed with bluish formaldehyde. A metal sculpture depicts a flayed Saint Bartholomew holding his own flaccid skin. Vitrines display animal and bird skeletons.

Hirst is perhaps best known for preserving sharks in tanks of formaldehyde, and the show presents two 16-footers, one of them sliced lengthwise. The two pieces are in side-by-side tanks so that visitors can, in a sense, walk through the animal. Elsewhere, brightly colored collages that look very much like stained glass windows turn out, close up, to be made of butterfly wings.

Hirst also brought a number of works built around cigarette butts, including a six-foot-wide ashtray piled with thousands of stubbed-out smokes. The distinctive stink of stale tobacco fills the space.

"He's saying that by the end of your life, your ashtray is full," suggests Invanka Yakovyne, a 17-year-old sporting lime green fingernails and red sneakers.

Oleksandr Derkach, 21, a student and writer, says he finds Hirst's work extraordinary. "I think I might leave my body to an artist like this."

Outside, the line to get in reaches halfway down the block; 10,000 people came to see the show in its first three days.

Eckhard Schneider, who came from Germany last fall to run the Pinchuk Art Center, says he found an enormous hunger in Ukraine for contemporary art, unlike anything he has seen in Western Europe or America.

"Here, everyone is thirsty for it. In the West, people think they know everything. They are jaded. They have arrogance about art," he says. "I have even seen museum patrons there tell an artist what he should do. Really! Here, everything is fresh."

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