The Art World's Shark Man, 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."

Local gallery owners say the appetite for contemporary art blossomed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Ukraine became independent. "Because of the U.S.S.R. we lost a century of contemporary art here," says Daryna Zholdak, who runs a downtown gallery.

Hirst's latest art is surprising -- oil paintings, a remarkably old-fashioned medium for a man best known as art's bad boy. It's almost as if Bill Gates turned to the abacus. Most of the new pictures feature ghostly white skulls floating on a blue-black background.

Why did Hirst turn to painting after his enormous success with sculpture and installations?

"A young artist can't be until the end of his life a young artist. If you don't change, you're lost," explains Schneider.

The crowd, though, seems to prefer Hirst's earlier work.

"I think the artist had too much black and blue paint around the house," says designer Anna Vasylkova, 22.

The reason Hirst's retrospective is in Ukraine comes down to one man. Pinchuk, an engineer with a doctorate in metallurgy, made his money in steel, banking and real estate. He took advantage of the breakup of the Soviet Union and used his connections (his marriage to the daughter of ex-president Leonid Kuchma) and a knack for making the right deal to expand his wealth to $2.6 billion, according to Forbes.

He has not hoarded all his money. He paid for free concerts in Kiev by Paul McCartney and Elton John, and he funds a number of philanthropic endeavors. He recently paid millions of dollars in ransom to free the Ukrainian crew of a freighter captured by Somali pirates. And, he is such a fan of Hirst that he even bought a share of the diamond-crusted platinum skull that the artist reportedly sold two years to a group of investors for a record $100 million -- though some doubt whether that much money changed hands.

Schneider, who helped direct the show, recalls when he first saw Hirst's work in the early '90s. Its importance was clear, Schneider says: For years, minimalist artists made huge opaque cubes, often painted a single color and devoid of any narrative. And Hirst, he says, took those cubes and converted them to glass. And, with a sense of mischief, he filled them with something that had a peculiar narrative: The death of the cow creates the life of a maggot that ends with the electrocution of the fly.

Not everyone at the Hirst show is convinced that Hirst is the genius others say he is. In one gallery, Dimitry Khutornoy, a 21-year-old designer, takes in a dead cow suspended from a rope, its entrails spilling onto a mirror strewn with money.

"You don't need too much brains to cut a cow," he says.

A burly, red-faced man stares for a quarter of an hour at the 16-foot shark's innards. As chattering students swirl past, Alexander Nastenko, 49, stands still.

"I was very curious to see this," says Nastenko, who explains that he spent 15 years in submarines and is now a diving instructor who has encountered smaller sharks in the Black Sea. "For me, I can hardly call it art. It's zoology."

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