In the contemporary climate, every new generation of artists is faced with the task of originating new forms of work that fall outside the margins of established commodity. In other words, to create work that is uncommodifiable, though it will not remain so for long. This is the cycle, the dance, the lie at the heart of the avant-garde, and everyone knows it. As the art market sets crunchily to work figuring out how to sell the unsaleable, the best or cutest or savviest of the new generation are called to join in the carousel, or production-line, churning out their visionary, uncommodifiable commodities, which have acquired in the meantime a price tag in accordance to their very resistance to commodity status, their rareness, their avant-gardiness. Avant-garde simply means as-yet-unsold (though-we’re-working-on-it); “outsider” art denotes that-for-which-we-can-see-no-buyer. I’m not talking about discrete objects, but about processes and concepts – and if it sounds abstract, it is. For the art game, after all, is the slipperiest and most opaque of markets, all smoke and mirrors and business cards and canapés and champagne, and the emperor’s new clothes paraded through the Whitney.
When I came across Damien Hirst’s Twitter account a few years ago, I saw no reason to doubt its authenticity. “British Damien Hirst” was as well-known for his glib arrogance in interviews as for his excesses; I just assumed that the booze and cocaine had eaten away whatever pretence of vision was left after his sources ran dry. I took Hirst’s willingness to argue over direct messages – and the stubborn consistency of his deliberately visionless vision – as further proof of his degeneration. But how does one keep the chip on one’s shoulder when raking in millions just for thinking up the barest of concepts and a grandiose 30-word title swollen with Judeo-Christian affect and post-consumer melancholy? So I let it go, until one day recently, when I asked him for an interview; and even then I thought I was dealing with the “real” Damien Hirst (whom we shall refer to as British Damien Hirst from here on out). The figure that emerged in his place is as full of contritions, contradictions, and grand claims as British Damien Hirst is famously said to be, but whereas BDH has capitulated entirely to the machinations of art world commerce, Slovenian Damien Hirst – “an unknown artist from an unknown country living an unknown life in an unknown village trying to infect our planet earth with the true love for art” – tenaciously maintains a hard-line Damien drag: a grim, [virtually] embodied riposte to the cult of the contemporary artist and all that goes along with it. It is a one-line joke, but repeated often with no special inflection a joke becomes a mantra, and then there is nothing funny about it at all.
Jesse Darling: How old are you and where were you born?
Slovenian Damien Hirst: I don’t answer personal questions of this type; not because I want to hide things, but because I don’t think it’s relevant. This is not about me, but about an idea that should be considered for what it is. People often think that I am doing this for attention, but I want no attention for myself. If you want me to talk about myself you won’t get anything from me. I don’t matter: only the idea does.
JD: Have you had any formal art education? What kind of work did you make before becoming Damien Hirst – and did you ever gain any recognition this way?
SDH: First of all, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an art education. I mean, which school taught people how to paint on cave walls? Which school taught cubism to Picasso? Which school taught Duchamp how to create a ready-made? I don’t think art is something that you can institutionalize. If you institutionalize art then you get what we have today. And what we have today is what the “stolen” Damien Hirst is all about.
My ambition to become an artist was never realistic because I failed to follow the logic one is required to follow in order to become an artist. I always tended to question things. Like, why does it have to be that way? There are so many artists out there who are doing great things, but they all embrace the basic idea of an artist doing art. And part of me followed that idea, but part of me just didn’t fit in. I just felt I needed a different perspective.
JD: Why did you decide to embody Damien Hirst, as opposed to someone famous and dead, like Warhol? Do you feel close to him in your nature?
SDH: It started spontaneously. I watched a documentary called “The Mona Lisa Curse” and it pissed me off so much that I created a blog (which doesn’t exist anymore) and named it Damien Hirst. The first image I put on that blog was an image of a glass jar in which I poured some orange looking drink. I put a computer cable in it as well and gave it some cool-sounding title, which I can’t remember anymore. A few days later someone commented on it. What puzzled me was that this person clearly thought this was a genuine artwork made by the famous British artist Damien Hirst. That made me think.
At first there was no elaborated plan, but with time I started to realize that Damien Hirst was perfect; for various reasons, starting with the fact that he’s the biggest artistic brand of our time. I never saw his art as meaningful for what it is, but for how it functions. I see his art as a series of commercials to promote his brand. And I see that as an amazing artistic achievement, which makes me consider him the greatest contemporary artist. The thing is, he doesn’t even recognize this great achievement, so I thought it would make sense if I used it to make a point. I find it hilarious that he wants to be compared to classical masters, when he invented a kind of art that hadn’t existed before: art that becomes pointless as soon as you remove the price tag.
I never considered Warhol. What Warhol was doing wasn’t so different from what Duchamp was doing. I did consider Jeff Koons, but because I wanted to appropriate the very spirit of contemporary art, it really had to be Hirst.
JD: In a sense you embody the very spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism (“art becomes art when it is bought as art”), yet some of the text on your site seem to suggest that you are critical of the huge premium placed on art-objects, and you describe yourself as a non-profit artist. Your site and your Twitter feed are full of such contradictions. How do you square these two positions?
SDH: My definition of art is very straightforward: art is what is sold as art, and that’s it. When someone buys something, believing he or she is buying art, then it is art.
If you pay for something because you think it’s art, you’re basically creating art: the buyer creates art, not the artist.
This is what’s going on in the art world, although they won’t tell you that – they don’t believe in art, but they do believe in selling art.
For me, the only objective is to create art – through selling art. The art world objective is to sell art for as much as possible. If you sell something for $1 or less, it’s still considered a sale. You don’t need to sell art for millions. And based on my definition, $1 is quite enough to create a work of art.
Do you see the paradox? In the end my intention is to create art rather than to make money, yet it functions in the same way.
JD: Your Paris Hilton diamond skull seems to echo this sense of being disappointed with the way that all things have become [just] a spectacle to consume: as though Paris Hilton herself is a readymade. Do you see your project as a capitulation to spectacle, or as the reclamation of spectacle, or what?
SDH: I think Paris Hilton is one of the best contemporary artists. The point of Paris Hilton is that she’s famous for being famous. This is the same logic that defines contemporary art, in that the art of Damien Hirst is expensive for being expensive. The point of my project is to shake the balance of this logic. What happens if people start believing that the cheap and meaningless art I make is created by the greatest artist of our time just because I appropriated his name? And they do believe it – they believe that some pointless scribbles on a piece of paper are art simply because of the name Damien Hirst on the same piece of paper. Some time ago I watched the documentary The Artist Is Present in which the protagonist, Marina Abramovi?, said something about how it took many years to convince people to start taking her art seriously. My question to her is: do you really believe your art is taken seriously, just because you became famous?
JD: Can you live from your art or do you work a day job? What’s the highest sum you have received for your art work, and who paid it? What did you do with the money?
SDH: As Slovenian Damien Hirst I sell art for as much people want to pay for it, plus shipping costs. That means I often sell it for free. But again, for me the point is to sell the art, not to make money. The highest sum I ever got for a single piece was €100. Of course I realized right away that something was wrong, so I contacted the buyer and asked him if he actually knew what he paid for. Obviously he didn’t; he thought he bought an “original” Damien Hirst, even if that “original” Damien Hirst was just a scribble on a piece of notepaper. He was too embarrassed to ask for a refund once I’d explained things to him, but he got the money back anyway because I am not a scam or a fraud or anything like that, and I don’t care about money. I care about promoting an artistic idea. I want people to understand what I do and possibly like it as well.
JD: The SERIOUSLY project almost seems self-consciously nihilistic, which is something I see in the real Damien’s work also; in your case it’s a kind of naive nihilism. Is that fair? I remember back when I thought you were the real Hirst, I used to get so angry with you for this nihilism, so totalizing as to be beyond cynicism. As an artist myself, I feel full of thoughts and feelings and politics and opinions, whereas you had renounced your own and set about making a spectacular joke of the idea that art might be driven by vision or a sense of emotional urgency. Did you ever have this sense of wanting to say something personal? Or do you see your Damien Hirst project as a political one?
SDH: We don’t need art to express ourselves. If you are sad, then cry. If you are angry, destroy something. If you don’t like something, say no to it. But if you want to make art, then do it because you want to make art and not for any other reason. The Seriously series is indeed nihilistic, but the main point of my art is that it’s exactly what it looks like. There are no implied meanings that you’re supposed to try to understand. There is nothing to understand about this viewer – artwork relationship. In this way I want to help people reflect on their approach to art in general. Does a work of art mean something if we find a certain meaning in it? And if we find a meaning, does it mean this meaning is actually there – or do we just imagine it? Art is art when we see it as art – and to connect that to the reality of the world we live in, I would add that art is art when it is sold as art.
Of course most artists would like us to believe that their work is meaningful and that it makes sense. They would like us to believe that their art holds an important message. I’m not saying that this couldn’t be the case, but I don’t think it’s relevant. Why should you bother about the quality of your art when whatever you come up with will never be as good as something signed by an established artistic brand? This is just a fact. You can like it or not. I am doing nothing but adapting to that fact.
As Slovenian Damien Hirst, I give people the chance to create art by telling them that what I do is art if they choose it to be. And then I hope they will learn to apply the same reasoning to everything that surrounds them. Don’t let others define what art is for you! Don’t see something as art just because it’s hanging in some important gallery. You can create art on your own by simply deciding what art is for you, and what it is not. People have the power to turn my meaningless, pointless, cheap, ugly creations into the most meaningful and beautiful art if only they wish to do so. And that’s art. Not the work of the artist, as Duchamp would have had it – but the work of the buyer.
Of course one could argue that in this way we’ll turn art into something completely meaningless, but all art is meaningless without this transformation. And why should it matter how it is achieved? We don’t believe in God because there is a God; there is a God because we believe. The same is true for art.
JD: Do you think that the only distinction between consumer goods and art is the nature of the transaction? What about Agamben’s idea that the sacred is that which is exempt from use? Doesn’t “the cult of” contemporary art fall within this category of the sacred?
SDH: I think everything exists as consumer goods, including art and the notion of the sacred. The problem with us human beings is that we need to believe in something. For example, I think that believing in God is plain stupid, but at the same time I feel handicapped because I can’t believe in God. I want us all to realize that believing in something should be seen as a choice and not an obligation. That’s why I often say that to really understand art, you need to learn how to like something that you actually hate.
JD: Is anything sacred [to you?]
SDH: I wouldn’t be a human being if I thought nothing was sacred despite the fact that nothing is sacred.
JD: Do your friends call you Damien Hirst? Do you work hard to protect your “real” identity?
SDH: I don’t really have friends, or if I do I don’t communicate with them. And as I mentioned before I believe my identity is irrelevant, so it’s not like I am trying to protect it. I simply don’t think it’s important.
JD: I noticed when I first saw your site a few years ago there were very few disclaimers – i.e., “I am not the real Damien Hirst.” Now they are on every page, and clearly signposted. Is this due to any kind of legal action by White Cube or Damien Hirst himself? How did this experience change your work?
SDH: The disclaimers are because too many people seem to believe I am the British Damien Hirst, despite the fact that the art I do looks like crap, and is crap. I got sick of explaining this to everyone, plus it made me feel guilty, even though it isn’t my fault if people get fooled. But it doesn’t seem to help all that much, since people still want to believe I am the British Damien Hirst. I don’t know if it’s because people don’t read what’s written, or because people don’t believe what’s written; it annoys me how people can’t seem to see the difference when it’s so obvious, but if you can’t see the difference between the crap Slovenian Damien Hirst makes and the “great art” British Damien Hirst makes, just because they share a name, then this only goes to prove my point. Frankly, I never imagined it could be like this, but it’s still happening.
I contacted White Cube some years back and asked them directly if they would approve what I was doing. They said no. At that point I considered giving up on everything. But then I thought they were such hypocrites – warning me that what I was doing was a trademark infringement, while also knowing that one of Damien Hirst’s major works was a much more severe case of trademark infringement, and defending it for being an artwork. They had a different opinion of what I’m doing, because it’s against their interests. But then I realized they’re just running a profitable business, so why should I care what they think about my art since they don’t give a damn about art in the first place?
I also exchanged a few words with Damien Hirst on Twitter and he didn’t sound like he really minded my doing what I’m doing, yet interestingly my Facebook account was disabled not long after that, though that could be a coincidence. Twitter seems to be a much more open-minded service, and I never had a problem with that account.
JD: In the mass-media spectacle you reference in your work, big stars often outsource their social media to PR agents. Are you consciously trying to undermine the Damien Hirst “brand” through being Damien Hirst [on Twitter and other platforms]?
SDH: I sincerely consider Damien Hirst to be the best artist of our time. I don’t have anything against Damien Hirst and even if I did, I don’t think I could do anything to damage his brand. Quite the opposite: by doing what I’m doing I am helping his brand gain relevance. For me Damien Hirst is just the paint I use to create my paintings.
JD: Do you ever exhibit your work in galleries or in the broader art world? Have you ever been curated in a show as “Slovenian Damien Hirst?”
SDH: That would make me part of the art world, right? Would I be doing this if I wanted to be part of the art world?
JD: And finally, can you respond to the following phrases, which the “real” Damien Hirst has said in various interviews?
i) “If you admit to yourself what it means to be an artist, then the best way to do it is to give up making art, and put what you’ve got into other people.”
ii) “I thought of doing a sculpture called “Sometimes I Feel I Have Nothing to Say And I Often Want To Communicate That.”
iii) “If art wasn’t around we’d still have life but if life wasn’t there you could forget about the art, so I find it difficult to believe in art. On the one hand I want to be an artist and on the other I want to be realistic.”
SDH: These quotes show that there is only one difference between the work of Slovenian Damien Hirst and the work of British Damien Hirst: the price. His art is expensive and mine is cheap. He wants to make money and I want to make art. The choice then is all yours.