Vanitas Fare

Lillian Davies at the opening for Damien Hirst's murderme collection


Left: Hans Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects at the Serpentine, and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. Right: Artist Tracey Emin. (All photos: Lillian Davies)

Not to be outdone by the YAAs of “USA Today,” Charles Saatchi’s latest Royal Academy blockbuster, Damien Hirst has followed the Serpentine Gallery’s “Uncertain States of America” with “In the darkest hour there may be light,” a selection of his enviable murderme collection. Having begun by swapping works with his friends Angus Fairhurst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas, Hirst has continued to amass his holdings by strategic purchases through art dealers—and eBay. Yes, he admitted to Hans-Ulrich Obrist that he has a penchant for fake Picassos available through the Internet auction site. This is the first public exhibition of the collection, and Hirst celebrated at the gallery on Friday afternoon with close friends and family—excluding even Serpentine staff. And, perhaps in preparation for his party later at posh hotel The Baglioni, Hirst only appeared briefly at the end of the private view, though he maintained a ghostlike presence in his exhibition—equal parts vanity and vanitas. Ever so humble, Hirst said in an interview on BBC Radio 4 last week that he wants to make his newly acquired three-hundred-room pile in the Cotswolds, soon to house his entire collection, into “the biggest and most ornate tombstone” imaginable.

As I entered the gallery on Friday night, I ran into artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who was standing between an early photocopy piece by Sarah Lucas and a row of aluminium stockpots and leather medicine balls arranged by Haim Steinbach. (Hirst’s consistent obsession with death seeped through works by both his predecessor and his peer.) Smith said the show was “like a Bing Crosby album,” but whether he was referring to 101 Gang Songs or Return to Paradise Islands, I wasn’t sure. As he slipped out the door, he cited an almost uncanny resemblance to the show Hirst curated in 1994 at the Serpentine, “Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away,” and sent me toward John Isaacs’s whale-meat sculpture.

Left: Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. Right: Artist Gregory Crewdson with White Cube's Craig Burnett.

Careful not to step in any puddles of blood dripping off the very realistic slabs of meat, I ran into Gregory Crewdson, in town to do a lecture for the V&A’s “Twilight” exhibition, savoring the show’s truly cinematic staging—Andy Warhol’s knives pointing down at an icy corpse by Michael Joo as Jeff Koons’s Hoovers cast a sickly light throughout the space. While none of Crewdson’s work was included in the show, he found Hirst’s project “very generous.” Many guests were paying their respects to Hirst’s Francis Bacons and Warhols, but everyone was excited about Isaacs’s work. I found him with his proud family, everyone beaming. Having never shown at the Serpentine before, he said, it was “a dream to be here.”

In the next room, in front of two mesmerizing Jim Lambie works, I ran into a friend, an art handler at Tate, who was in awe of the installation—which Hirst had conceived entirely on his own. We prided ourselves on having our priorities straight and hanging with the medium-thick crowd in the gallery, rather than the veritable mob searching for drinks in the tent outside. (With a cash bar, the crowd stayed sober.) New chief curator Kitty Scott described the exhibition as “a rare chance for visitors to be on intimate terms with the artist.” Hans-Ulrich Obrist elaborated, explaining that Hirst led the entire production of the show: He built his own maquettes of the gallery to play with the hang, and likewise controlled the exhibition catalogue and curated the Serpentine’s limited-edition print portfolio. But how did the omnipresent curator feel about this? “It was a great gift! This is Hirst’s Gesamtkunstwerk!” Did Sir Nicholas Serota wish Tate could have snagged the show? With as much reverence as regret, he told me, “No other living artist has a collection like this.”

Even conservative South Kensington locals were getting into it. Richard Briggs, a philanthropist with Prince Michael of Kent’s local charity, Hyde Park Appeal, admitted, “This time, some of the work appeals to me.” His wife cut in and suggested, “He just wants one of those cars.” The car, Sarah Lucas’s No Limits!, a BMW stripped of its doors and a mechanical arm wanking over the driver’s seat, seemed to pose quite a threat as it careened toward a Francis Bacon with a gold frame almost as grotesque as the hacked A Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion.

Left: Art Basel director Samuel Keller. Right: Artist Dinos Chapman.

Toward the end of the evening, stress levels visibly rising among the event organizers and news of a forty-five-minute queue at the Serpentine’s garden gates spreading through the crowd, artist Richard Wentworth confidently declared the show was “one of the great truths of our time.” As if to trace back the family tree, he explained, elliptically, that it was “the only possible consequence of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1964 exhibition at Whitechapel” and, finally, “the parents are in bed with the children.” The stampede at the exit was inevitable. The mounting frenzy of the ravenous crowd was just as Hirst would have wanted it.

Left: Artist Bob and Roberta Smith. Right: Friend with artist John Isaacs.

Left: Steve Hughes with artist Richard Wentworth. Right: Philanthropists Basia Briggs and Richard Briggs OBE.