Damien Hirst on how he found the perfect spot for his work in north Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 07:00 31 March 2018
Damien Hirst’s controversial contemporary art and north Norfolk’s historic Houghton Hall may seem worlds apart, but they prove the perfect mix in a new exhibition. Arts correspondent Emma Knights speaks to Damien Hirst about his latest show.
It may seem like an unlikely match, but in the classic countryside setting of north Norfolk’s Houghton Hall, Damien Hirst found the perfect spot for his latest exhibition.
The portraits that usually adorn the hall’s walls have been packed away to make way for 46 of Damien’s new Colour Space paintings, a brightly coloured assortment of spots which form the next generation of his iconic Spot Paintings.
And Damien, who flew in by helicopter for a final look at the show ahead of its opening last weekend, is delighted with the cultural collision of old and new at the estate which was once home to Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.
“I’ve only ever done a couple of shows of historic works before. I did a show once, a long time ago, at the Naples Archaeological Museum and I really like the context of putting contemporary art with older art in that way, and so the idea to do it here I thought would work really well,” he said.
The show is curated by his friend Mario Codognato, who studied at University of East Anglia, and it was Mario who suggested Houghton as a location for Damien’s work.
It is the third contemporary art show at Houghton in the last few years after owner Lord Cholmondeley previously hosted exhibitions by James Turrell and Sir Richard Long.
“I came down and had a look and just thought if we could remove some of the [hall’s] paintings it would be just amazing,” said Damien.
“I really like the way it has turned out because I think the Colour Space paintings don’t look out of place even though they are contemporary, they feel like they belong here.”
Damien started the Spot Paintings in the late 1980s. “I thought I was going to do it as an endless series of spots. I liked the idea of a man who was a machine who made paintings endlessly and infinitely, and when I did my Spot catalogue raisonné I looked at them altogether in context, and realised the first two were really drippy and messy, throwing the paint around with no grid. Then for 25 years I painted on this grid.
“I suddenly felt maybe I was too quick to get rid of the drips so I thought I’m going to do a series where it feels like the spots are falling off the grid, so you still get the visual thing of the colours, where they sort of interfere with your eyes and make your eyes play tricks with you. I still wanted to do that, but I just didn’t want the minimal grid. I don’t know why really, maybe because I’m getting a bit older, maybe we are all falling off the grid.”
The Colour Space series was to be the sole focus of Damien’s show but after being inspired by the hall’s magnificent surrounds, he decided to bring some of his famous sculptures too.
Inside, kinetic sculptures noisily blow around table tennis balls, a skull’s eyes appear to levitate, and a giant red dog plays with a bone. Sculptures outside include The Virgin Mother - a statue that cuts through a woman’s figure to reveal her unborn child - and Myth and Legend, two sculptures which see the mystical worlds of the unicorn and Pegasus collide with science and medicine.
When asked what Houghton added to his work, Damien said: “It works differently for different things doesn’t it? Like the marble sculpture (Anatomy of an Angel) looks like it’s been here for thousands of years anyway, it looks really at home, and then there are the Spot Paintings, I think it sort of reminds you really that all art begins its life as contemporary.
“You get a lot of people who say I like old masters, I don’t like contemporary, or I like modern art, I don’t like contemporary art. At the end of the day you realise all art is just art and it kind of all works everywhere really.”
Houghton is not the only place in Norfolk where we can currently see Damien’s work – his 20ft high figure Hymn has been installed in St Georges Street outside Norwich University of the Arts. The giant male torso puts the spotlight on human anatomy and is linked to a later sculpture, Temple, on show at Houghton.
“Hymn is a child’s toy whereas Temple is a proper anatomical specimen...One’s for grown-ups and one’s for kids. That’s what I was doing really, taking a toy and making it so big that you make an adult feel like a child,” he said.
“Hymn was the first bronze I made...After six months of being in the studio [next door] I walked into the bronze foundry and saw what they were doing, and I said, ‘I want to make something,’ and they said, ‘what?’ and I had my son Connor’s toy which was Hymn. I really liked it because it was a toy but it was kind of scientific to educate children. I just enlarged it to 20ft tall.
“They said, ‘why do you want it to be bronze?’ and I said, ‘because I want it to be part of that tradition, I want it to be grand and I want it to last a long time.’”
Hymn has previously been on show in London, Doha, Qatar, and New York, and Damien loves now seeing it in Norwich.
“I think it’s a really good idea, it’s nice and hopefully it will bring people up here (to Houghton) and people from here to there,” he said. Context is everything. I’ve always loved galleries but there’s lots of exciting things that happen when you go outside the gallery, when you venture out.”
Damien Hirst at Houghton Hall runs until July 15 - www.houghtonhall.com
Hymn is on display in St Georges Street, Norwich, until mid July.