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Damien Hirst: The Other Side of Rot

Are Damien Hirst's 'Spin Paintings' a "massive explosion of energy, full of life, colour and optimism" or something more sinister?

Beautiful, red pounding in my ears, obnoxious, hot, seething crimson flame—

Beautiful, blue leaking down my throat, spicy, fragrant odour of steaming broth—

Beautiful, orange wailing, scratchy siren shriek, thundering phantom howl—

Beautiful, yellow mouthful of blood, earthy minerals, chemicals bubble and fizz—

Beautiful, green roasts bitter seasoned pepper, fine and gritty—

Beautiful, purple laments ripe cider, relishing the silence once again…

The drip, drip, drip of an eyedropper-of-flavours onto my tongue and the rat-a-tat-tat of the rising melodies in my ear accompany colours. More than seeing colour as emotion (a blue mood or green envy) I sense it physically, vividly, as a taste or sound: the inky, creaminess of blacks, or the soft, volcanic vibration of pink. Colours conjure these sensations separate from a hallucination, or a metaphor, but map themselves to taste and sound (and vice versa). I see them as a form, distinct and clear in my “mind’s eye”, or on my tongue, tasting in technicolour; a leaking of the senses, where the walls between them are not solid, where what I perceive is liquid, fluid, trickling, dripping, oozing; a complex sensory Niagara. Much like Hirst’s ‘Spin Paintings’ themselves.

"The movement sort of implies life…”

Centrifugally forceful, the ‘Spin Paintings’ are presented on rhythmic spinning discs; a radial explosion of clear reds and blues and greens chase each other across the canvas, turn by turn, like watching a world all of its own complete its interminable orbit. Mounted to the wall on a spinning motor, it transforms something extremely simple into something exceptionally beautiful – pulsating, kinetic, throbbing, as if ALIVE – as colours dissolve, melt, float, soar – a full percussion orchestra of green, purple, orange – amidst their own newfound pandemonium of existence, surging, liberated, flooding, freed (or as someone I know described, looking like a closeup of a butterfly’s wing, newly transformed, prepared to rise). Hirst has always been interested in the transformative power of art, his work’s nucleus always seeped with themes of “rebirth”. Here, assembling and amalgamating the individuality of each tone into this new life cycle, Hirst becomes God, setting the controls for the heart and sun. The machine in motion, the LIFE of the work. A new order found in abstraction, devoid of narrative or symbolism, it embraces the chaotic miasma of meaninglessness. It embraces life.

Watching the hubristic critical rise and fall of Hirst, the galvanising prodigal son of the YBA’s, and the charming reckless child of the art world, is fascinating. Whether you love him or hate him, the reasons are the same. He has coveted and concealed controversial subject matters inside his works throughout his entire contentious career: death, sex, decay, the infinite, the destruction of humanity at the hands of humanity, the sheer impermanence of everything. Yet, the subject of his “Spin Paintings” – to me, at least – aren't even on the canvas or, more accurately, cannot be contained by the canvas. They are in a place where only I can see them. And as I stare at these twisting, tumbling vortexes, I lose all fixed ideas of what is what as my senses completely disintegrate into limitlessness.

Synesthesia (meaning "to perceive together") is experiencing one of your senses through another. And Hirst’s machine-blended cocktail, his chorus of colour, his constellatory canvases storm me in all of their kitsch, lurid, excessive, overblown glory. As humans, we live within the narrow scope that our senses allow, our view of the world becomes like looking through a tunnel. Here, it feels boundless. Beyond knowledge. Lying somewhere between abstract expressionism and pop art, and beyond the social or political purposes of a lot of modern art, Hirst reminds me what pure paint on a canvas, in its essence, can do.

Exploring new wildernesses of perception, Hirst reminds us that what we see isn’t set in stone. Seeing shouldn’t be believing. It is like the complete opposite of Pollock's organic, disintegrative murals or Rothko's static, twilight-zone-colour-fields; they both suck you in while this spins you around and spits you back out. Keyed-up harmonies of colour, marbled mottled veined eclipse of colour, a prismatic force field, an electromagnetic visual womb… this frazzled masterpiece of hypnotic minimalism, cosmic mandalas of flecked ruby fire and ghostly wails and spiral blasts fuming pit-a-pat, pitter-patter immediacy, like an opalesced lotus blooming and wilting simultaneously. Disorientating, with no up, no down, its gravity-defying and finds its footing in some ceaselessly-orbiting limbo, floating within fields of colour, it feels like a violation of the laws of nature, as it vibrates, electric, still seeming to be in the process of creation… inchoate.

Though not the first to create “spin paintings”, Hirst first experimented with spin art in his studio in Brixton in 1992, and he has since done many variations. They are not mere visual candy, there is a mayhem to their presence, especially when viewing them as another Hirst memento mori. In typical Hirst branding, he created a series of spin paintings where the canvas is cut into the silhouette of a skull, rather than circular. Much like his other work – the detritus of his medicine cabinets or walls of pills and cigarettes, the displayed decay of his formaldehyde sculptures, or the pale, desaturated dots on clinical, sterile white canvas – that screams loudly about the endless contradictory possibilities, of all conceivable outcomes, of mortality, these canvases smothered in colour also confront death. I think of when Willem de Kooning once screamed at Warhol, “you’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty”. Yet, they are beautiful. What is on the other side of death if not beauty (a Heaven or even Eden itself?), because there must be something after rot. So, why not a vibrating rainbow of hues, a spinning spectrum of colour, a spectre of energetic shades?

At the point when one day my heart will quit thumping. My blood will quit siphoning. My sight will break up to darkness. My hearing will blur to quiet. I won't ever taste, smell or feel again. So, let this be a memento mori, a reminder to never take that for granted. To consistently enjoy the flavour of the blues and the hints of the red. Because it won’t ever last.

Why stop in despair when we can just keep spinning…




“…the moment they stop, they start to rot and stink."


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