Damien Hirst’s skull at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2008)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 28 November 2010
This article was previously published in Sculpture magazine, March 2009, pp. 14-5.

Damien Hirst at the Rijksmuseum

damien hirst rijksmuseum amsterdam

For just over a month (November 1 - December 15, 2008), Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum acquired a new art chapel, an almost pitch-black, 30-square-meter room housing Damien Hirst’s spotlighted skull, For the Love of God (2007). I entered the space after taking part in what was almost a procession. Accompanying me on my sneak peek were a German and a Belgian journalist, the museum’s general director, a curator of 17th-century art, a recent hire for contemporary interventions, and a museum press officer. We walked through rooms filled with old masters, the three writers carrying contemporary attributes— glossy black shopping bags with large diamond skulls imposed on them and filled with press kits, catalogues, and photo CDs.

Tension between art, marketing, and celebrity defined this installation of the diamond skull and the accompanying exhibition of 17th-century art guest-curated by Damien Hirst. [1] The same tension may also explain why Hirst’s work is difficult to place. It seems to touch early 21st-century life in global capitalism: installed with intense Caravaggesque lighting beamed strategically from above, the entire package was designed to dazzle as well as repulse. But most of all, it was designed to get people talking.

‘I am not concerned about
the details of these sales.
What matters to me is that
they were announced
unleashed, picked up,
printed, reprinted,
accelerated, translated,
and multiplied across
global media. But beneath
the surface text,
intense darkness remains.’

— R.J. Preece

What’s particularly impressive about For the Love of God, and its accompanying exhibition, is how it generates a wide range of strong reactions— and how it seems to marshal so many key issues and strategies, with impressive quantitative results. This success is arguably led by the skull’s sensational form, costly materials, and price on the one hand, and its themes—both intellectual and emotional—such as greed, death, and immortality on the other. Its placement inside a prestigious and historical European art collection not only added a new context for the work to generate discussions about meaning, it also acted as an additional media / communications power-layer and talking point. At the same time, we see brand strengthening not only for the skull, the new rock star, but also for Damien Hirst, the art star, as well as for the Rijksmuseum.

At first, I found For the Love of God a bit like an over-the-top freak-object, a disco death-head, almost camp. Are all of these diamonds real? But what struck me was that the skull appears smaller and more fragile than its confident appearance in photographs and on television. This draws an important distinction between original and mass-media re-presentation in relation to discussions on celebrities.

Set inside a glass case, this precious item of highly exclusive global privilege also became a public object for visitors who paid to enter the chapel for the unique experience and entertainment. Questioning many things about money, celebrity, cult of personality, and mass media, the work looks like a twisted, isolated, painful trap. Is this what Damien Hirst has learned on his remarkable journey? How symbolic and how personal is this object?

The skull perhaps radiates a certain truth of our time, magnified by the extreme cost of the materials (reportedly £12 million) and its equally extreme sale price (£50 million), pushed by increasingly networked capitalist and global hierarchies—and with them, the international art hierarchy. The packaging of the object, however, may be deceptive. Like today’s vulnerable corporations, a skull with 8,601 flawless diamonds appears in principle to run the risk of being dismantled for higher profit— especially the branded Skull Star Diamond placed in the forehead. In any event, the material itself is also an investment.

After a few minutes of our group’s viewing, low light filled the space and unexpectedly revealed two security guards standing against the walls. I was reminded of the darkness in Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), on view next to Damien Hirst’s curated exhibition. The details of the skull’s current ownership likewise remain in darkness after the dramatic media coverage of its sale. [2] And just six weeks before the opening of the Rijksmuseum installation, it was announced internationally and extensively that an auction of Damien Hirst’s work raised £95.7 million from the sale of 223 lots at Sotheby’s in London. I am not concerned about the details of these sales. What matters to me is that they were announced— unleashed, picked up, printed, reprinted, accelerated, translated, and multiplied across global media. But beneath the surface text, intense darkness remains.

Stepping out into the artificial light of the museum and back among the public, I entered the accompanying exhibition of 16 paintings from the Rijksmuseum collection selected by Damien Hirst. I was struck by how he was allowed to achieve a traditional desire of the artist— contextualization into Art History. In addition, the show demonstrated an innovative, effective approach to historical and contemporary art partnerships, artist brand-building, and rock star recognition.

The 16 paintings were divided into five sections. Most important were those drawing connections to the skull and themes of mortality; [then] a group of [four] morality paintings showing life’s choices; a political commentary and a landscape; a bizarre triptych consisting of still-life imagery. Four works related to a [fifth] section of public/private [personae, by a still-life] showing a keen eye for detail, a depiction of the expulsion from Eden, and a 17th-century bacchanal scene, [which itself referred to an earlier time period, the Greco-Roman.] A standard museum produced label was located next to each work, and Damien Hirst offered his take— in Dutch and English.

damien hirst diamond skull rijksmuseum amsterdam
Damien Hirst & the diamond skull at the Rijksmuseum, exterior promotional image, 2008-09.

Drawing a connection between the skull, as well as life and inevitable death, Damien Hirst included Hendrick Bloemaert’s Woman selling eggs (1632), commenting, “A great image. The beginning and the end. I love the way the egg makes us think of a skull although her skull is protected by the scarves.” One of my favorite selections was Satire on the Trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1663). Hirst comments: “Heaven or hell? You decide. It seems like too many magic mushrooms to me. He’s definitely gone too far down one of those roads, too far to turn back. I feel sorry for him but then part of me thinks he’s having some kind of fun.”

At this point, I started to question the cheeky, mediagenic, populist quotations. Here, a dual discourse— art specialist and populist-sensational— was presented. I was struck by how much Damien Hirst sounded like some BFA students commenting on historical works. I was also reminded how this used to irritate my art history lecturers. Is this what Hirst really thinks, or are these quotations supposed to represent what the public persona of Damien Hirst should say?

Parallel media campaign: Marc Quinn - Kate Moss - solid gold

A somewhat parallel visual and verbal exhibition-campaign was taking place at the same time at the British Museum, where Siren, Marc Quinn’s reportedly solid gold sculpture depicting supermodel Kate Moss, appeared as part of Statuephilia. As with Damien Hirst’s diamonds, the material for the sensational 50-kilogram statue—reported to be worth £1.5 million—could conceivably be “deconstructed” for its own value, in this case melted down. Marc Quinn’s work could end up as some sort of saleable multiple with the added value of the material originally being part of a famous artwork on view in the prestigious British Museum. In both cases, the objects achieve new sensation levels and public attention based on apparent extravagance as opposed to possible material investment with added art publicity value.

Marc Quinn opts for celebrity subject matter with a borderline shocking pose. This provides five visual and verbal media / communications layers to the work: the material, the cost of material, the celebrity subject matter, the sensational yoga pose, and the prestigious and potentially discussion-generating siting. There’s a sixth point too, stated in the press release: “Quinn’s work is the largest gold statue since Ancient Egypt.” In the museum, the work was juxtaposed with classical statuary. The British Museum received comparable benefits to those enjoyed by the Rijksmuseum, benefits that extended to sponsors and museum partners. In addition, “Kate Moss” is a language device that enables movement into the fashion and lifestyle trade presses. It’s all visible via a Google search. For the art press, it’s arguably more effective to communicate the specialized language of the visual art outside of its marketing and mass-media contexts.

These two artworks demonstrate an innovative new kind of visual and verbal communications strategy, showing the building of icons and brands by artists and their teams. But the rock star and Damien Hirst, building on the work of their art star predecessors, create a real challenge. Maybe art writing and art history need to connect more with the frameworks offered and developed in other disciplines, at least when art, marketing, and celebrity begin to intersect. Here, the music industry, brand-building, mass-media research, defining target groups, and evaluating public relations campaigns all seem relevant.

Looking back into history, we know that some artworks end up marshalling crucially diverse elements and representing their time. For the Love of God may indeed be the artwork of our time. Love it. Hate it. Be bored by it. These reactions don’t seem to matter. In the meantime, visitors kept lining up to visit and pay homage to that skull in the dark room. The controversy and discussions continue. The media reports multiply. And the brand continues to build more recognition. I’m convinced that this event could serve as a case study for other fields in mass media, public relations, marketing, and business contexts.

Specializations enable great developments and insights. But they run the risk of becoming so narrow that they lose the larger picture. Of course, Damien Hirst’s project is designed in part to offend— that’s partly what it’s about. But in the end, it’s a very generous gift with a great deal of knowledge. It’s also an Orwellian warning, demonstrating how so many of us globally can be activated, at the cost of almost nothing.

Damien Hirst’s diamond skull at Rijksmuseum: 1 | Damien Hirst’s diamond skull at Rijksmuseum - Behind the scenes: 2

[1] See John A. Walker, Art and Celebrity (2003) and Art in the Age of Mass Media (3rd. ed., 2001), both published by Pluto Press, for an overview of the general issues.

[2] See my article “Why I Love Damien Hirst’s Skull”, Sculpture, January 2008, pp. 42–45, for a report on the impressive international news coverage.