GalleriesWeekend

The Immaculate Conception of Damien Hirst

by John Yau on January 21, 2012

Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a judge on the TV game show, "What's My Line." (via Facebook fan page)

“You do know, don’t you, that even well-meaning people are pawns for the powerful, and when it comes right down to it, humans are best thought of as oversized prawns waiting to be plucked from their beds of ice? Personally, I like to methodically squeeze the plumpest and pinkest ones between my thumb and forefinger, really smooth them out, before swallowing them whole.”

I dreamt that I met the famous and powerful Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. She was tired of lying around in Rose Hill Permanent Rest Stop and wondered if she could get her old job back.

Before I had a chance to tell her that I wasn’t an editor at the Los Angeles Times, and that I had read my name only a few times in the New York Times, she breathlessly introduced herself:

“ I know you are a poet. That’s why I came here. I want to talk to you about art and poetry, to open your eyes to a few things, and to tell you who Frank O’Hara was referring to when he said:

‘you grinning Simian fart, poseur among idiots and dilettantes and pederasts.’”

I blinked thrice. Was this really Hedda Hopper, the Queen of Mean, or was it a perfect facsimile? Just because I was having a dream didn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

As often happens in dreams and video games, my mind was suddenly infused with new information. Hedda was the fifth wife of DeWolfe Hopper. Her original name was Elda Furry. A numerologist told Elda to change her name to Hedda because Hopper’s first four wives were Ella, Ida, Edna and Nella.

Yes, I know, he kept calling Elda by the wrong name at the moment of climax, which helps explain why she now goes from gallery to gallery, press releases in gloved hand, obsessed with lineages, secret meetings and the real truth of Damien Hirst’s immaculate conception.

Hedda smiled, all clean teeth and no lips. The decades she spent lounging in heaven (or Hollywood’s updated version of it) hadn’t mellowed her.

She must have been listening to my thoughts.

“I named my home in Beverly Hills, The House that Fear Built, because calling it anything else would have meant that I wanted people to like me.” Love was all that I needed, big handfuls of it in sequential order.”

She was whispering to the shadows seated nearest her, while I stood with the hordes of angry voters, eager for the news:
“You know my son was a detective, don’t you?”

“Yes, he was in the Perry Mason show and never had sex, but that was on television,” I shouted, before I had time to think, which is bad, even for practicing Buddhists, of which I am not one, despite my complexion.

“Do you really think there is a difference between reality and TV?” she asked. “They will fix that soon enough. You back there, don’t tell me that you’re one of those stubborn bubbleheads who gives a spotted calf about Damien Hirst’s spot paintings? I am proud that I voted for Barry Goldwater and that I said lots of nice things about Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. This means I know a heck of a lot more about art than you know about astrophysics. So listen up.”

Frozen with the admittedly, irrational thought that I would be condemned to live in the basement of a mansion on Jupiter Island, along with the rest of Celine Dion’s immigrant wait staff, but that I alone would be ordered to purify her swimming pool under a full moon, while dressed in polka-dotted Speedos, I pressed the red panic button that is hidden under the rug in every dream. It seemed to work.

Professor Hopper was standing at the podium, reading from her notes. She was well prepared and spoke in a clear voice.

“What I really want to know is why all of you down there aren’t talking about Damien’s parents. That puzzles me because the resemblances are obvious and unmistakable. Yet every one of you is silent about it. Isn’t it apparent who Damien’s true parents are?”

The class was stumped and it showed. I slumped further down in my seat. Boy, I thought, it’s really lucky that I am not a contestant on the reality game show, Big Important Art Equals Big Important Money, because I don’t have Hal Foster’s cell phone listed under “Friends” and can’t call him for advice. Oh well, I guess that means that I won’t have to face the world-famous emcee, Jerry Saltz, who I know will ask me a deeply probing question about the thought police. Maybe the administration will still let me graduate from beauty school.

Suddenly, Manhattan was a desert island dotted with red palm trees and a row of deserted shake shacks modeled after Mitt Romney’s station wagon, complete with red, white, and blue marquees featuring Irish setter logos — a site-specific installation commissioned by the director of the New Museum of Very Recent Modern Art.

Weegee's photo of Hedda Hopper, 1951 (via sfmoma.org)

A band of masked Neanderthals known as “the merry shoppers” wandered in and out of the mall, clutching small pink bags marked “small pink bags.”  It wasn’t clear that anything was in them.

Professor Hopper slowly adjusted her wire-rimmed glasses with dark insets, and looked up. The air grew still.

“Well, you little rows of babbling dodos, isn’t it obvious? Damien Hirst was born of a conceptual tryst between Frank Stella and Allan McCollum. Sure, Frank and Allan thought that they were practicing Unassailable-Announcements-Etched-in-Stone while dancing down the yellow brick road of artistic progress, but you know how slippery ideas are. It’s as plain as the smirky smug on Donald Trump’s puffy, lying face that Hirst is their love child. Can’t you people on earth see anything? Or to quote Mr. Stella: “What you see is what you see.’ I see the obvious, my sweet darlings. Don’t you?”

Dr. Hopper leaned forward.

“Soon, you too will be able to connect the dots, all 900 million of them.”

Since none of us were sure what Hedda Hopper was going to say next, we popped out of our holes and wiggled our suddenly oversized ears, a sure sign in Bunnytown that we were hungry to hear more.

She looked up, a voracious grin slithering through the meaningful crags of her face.

“This is what Stella, the minimalist giant, famously said: ‘I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.’ And he wasn’t talking about the toilet, if you catch my drift.”

On the edge of the lawn four pink noses lit up and buzzed, while a jellyfish went electric. Everyone, it seems, was at the same convocation.

“Okay, so some of you got the first clue about Hirst’ s real sire. It certainly wasn’t Marcel Duchamp, as many of you have wrongfully and stupidly proclaimed. How could it be when we know that Marcel hated mass production. The poor man didn’t have the good sense to worship money, like Damien and me.”

Outside the packed lecture hall, a chorus of athletic women of Greek descent, all of them wearing stylish, black polyester togas, began singing:

Oh let’s face it, oh let’s face it, while you are still paint in the can.
Doo weee, wooo weee,
Damien makes oodles and oodles while you eat more beans and noodles.
Doo weee, wooo weee,
Oodles and oodles is the only way to go, to get to art star heaven
(Repeat previous line at least twice)
Doo weee, wooo weee,
More gobs of green oodles for me, more plops of yellow noodles for you.
Doo doo weee, doo doo weee,
Move on over Frankie and Allan, Big Damien is now the man.

“Marcel was stupid for not being greedy. He would have gotten a C if he took my home economics class. All he had to do was purchase lots of Readymades from Home Depot, but he didn’t even bother going to Ikea or Gracious Living. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel just spins and spins. It was Stella’s Protractor Series that generated the spot-producing sperm that produced the spots that landed where they were aimed. Don’t you see something emotionally identical about their coloring? — Utterly charmless and cheerful, like the industrial-sized bags of jelly beans Mr. Fatso delivers to the obese children stuck in Boise.

“Well, I have to say that I like Frank’s color a spot more than Damien’s emptiness. Even when these men are smiling, they are stubbornly cheerless, aren’t they? I suppose it’s their version of tough.”

(Here Gary Stephan turned and whispered, you know Hedda Hopper is going to misquote what I told you yesterday about Allan McCollum, while you were sitting in my studio. I nodded, knowing this was true, even if it was a dream)

Hedda Hopper with Elvis Presley. (via elvisfansite.com)

“As for the other parent,” Hopper went on. “According to the well-known gossip columnist and rather dreadful prose writer, Miss Wikipedia, McCollum is ‘known for utilizing the methods of mass production in his work in many different ways, often creating thousands of objects that, while produced in large quantity, are each unique.’ Isn’t each of Hirst’s spot paintings unique?  Isn’t their paint as good as it was in the can? ”

“Stella, McCollum, Hirst, cha-cha-cha.”

Clearly, Hedda had learned a thing or two from her detective son, Paul.

“Isn’t it obvious by now that Hirst is the progeny of Stella and McCollum? That Andy Warhol, Stella’s non-fraternal twin, is Hirst’s uncle, once removed? And that Bridget Riley is the aunt-in-waiting, who might have actually been the surrogate mother.”

We stood on the loading dock of the Museum of Modern Art, the three Musketeers and I, amazed. Yes, it did seem that Ms. Hopper was on to something, but just as we were beginning to individually digest these capsules of new information, she interrupted our reverie with another disclosure: “That’s not all, you know.”

“Hirst is a neo-formalist who is trying to orchestrate his own narrative, just like Stella before him. That’s a very important thing to do — be the author of your own happy-ending story Here’s more proof that Damien is the love child of Stella and McCollum — everything he does is supposed to appear to be the logical consequence of what preceded it. The spot paintings are the logical consequence of ‘For the Love of God.'”

Ms. Hopper took a sip of her magical elixir.

“All of you probably know that Damien Hirst has to come up with a form of self-promotion about once every eighteen months; he has to find a way to stay in the public eye, and be a subject of gossip columns and art magazines.”

A teenage girl in a torn Wu-Tang Clan tee shirt began biting her green fingernails with too much gusto. Something bad was about to pop up.

“In 2007, Hirst produced ‘For the Love of God,’ a platinum cast of a human skull inset with 8,601 flawless, pave-laid diamonds, which were ‘ethically-sourced.’ Imagine being able to go from the well-maintained mines of South Africa to pristine galleries and spotless Swiss bank vaults without a single bump in the road. Aren’t you glad apartheid is over? You couldn’t make this kind of fancy tchotchke and call it art during Stella’s heyday, which is why Hirst was born when he was.”

Hedda sighed, thinking of all that money piled onto one head, like her perfect hat. She began speaking rapidly, as if she was suddenly in a hurry to get home.

“If we are to believe Hirst — and why shouldn’t we? — The title came from his mother, who once asked, “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?’ The homey touch almost makes you feel like Hirst is a regular guy, just like you and me. Isn’t it reassuring to know that Hirst’s mom only asked this question once?”

“Personally, I think ‘For the Love of God’ was something that Indiana Jones found in a crypt where Ozzy Osbourne and Cleopatra, yes, the original, spent a long, forgotten night together.”

Our heads were so full of ideas that some of us had to stop taking notes.

For the evening’s collective distraction, a public announcement was broadcast in a mellifluous voice over the loudspeaker in the lobby of the hotel where the last survivors had gathered. “‘For the Love of God’ was put on display in a bulletproof glass case in a suitably dark, non-distracting room on the top floor of the White Cube, an aptly named London gallery. As expected, legions of gawkers came to look at money dressed up as more money. The gawker’s are Hirst’s bread and butter, even though none of them can afford anything his assistants make, unless it’s a refrigerator magnet or a polka-dotted coffee cup. After doing a little shopping, they want to see what fifty million dollars looks like. It makes them feel better about what they just bought.”

The woman with the sultry voice of a museum curator went on. “Damien Hirst’s production is Ronald Reagan’s trickle down theory put into action. It’s Thatcherism writ large. It’s the real world in 3D. The upper echelon of the art world loves Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, because they are Hirst’s loving grandparents. His work guarantees that flakes of money trickle down the whitewashed walls of culture into the pockets of the guards who watch over his products. The guards are good for business.”

“Speaking of bad movies,” Hedda announced, as if she had been struck by lightning for the third or fourth time that evening. “I don’t know if any of you are old enough to remember, but there was time when the art world sat around, wondering what Frank Stella was going to do next. What’s Stella going to do after the Protractor Series? Huh? Do you think Al Held will do something equally as exciting? Huh? Some people think of that as the good old days. And then there was Julian Schnabel — he too had people all excited for a while. What’s Julian going to do after the broken plates? Huh? Well here is something for Hirst to do after the spot painting extravaganza. Since assistants make his paintings, why not gather together some from each group and put them in a show called The Anonymous Assistant of Damien Hirst. I am sure he could get the experts to write about it.”

My head was still spinning. When it finally stopped, I heard Hedda lecturing the herd of little yellow chicks happily gathered at her feet.

“I‘m sorry — I’ve wandered off the subject, which is the saga of Damien Hirst, ugly neo-formalist in search of heaven’s gate. After ‘For the Love of God’ was shown, the unmistakable taint of elitism clung to the whole event. Here was something that only a few people were able to see. The rest had to settle for the cover of Artforum, home of the really big thinkers.”

“Now anyone of you can go to one of eleven galleries and have the Damien Hirst experience. You do know that you don’t actually go to look at the spot paintings. You go so that you can say that you went and looked at Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. And yes, you can text message a friend, they ARE actually as good as the paint in the can. In fact, they may even be A WEE BIT BETTER than the paint in the can. I mean that white is doing something NEW, isn’t it? Are THOSE COLORS interesting? Isn’t that bit of difference proof of artistic progress? Isn’t progress what everyone wants?  ”

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  • Anonymous

    I find it frustrating that most irreverent use of the term “immaculate conception” comes from folks who don’t seem to understand what the term means

  • Anonymous

    John Yau. That was a nice piece of creative writing. How different are Damien’s dots compared to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, or your wife’s work, for that matter? It’s nearly the same thing, over and over, every time. You don’t get the same hand job with Damien’s dots, but that is the point isn’t it? Warhola-A-Hola’s whole oeuvre was about Fame. Damien Hirst’s is about The Market. That is why high minded intellectuals, like yourself, who should know better, can’t refrain from writing about it. PS: Your Jackson Pollock poem is still one of my favs.

  • Den Hickey

    God, yet another article about Hirst’s idiotic spot paintings.  Why does he make them?  BECAUSE THEY SELL!  What do they mean?  HE MAKES MORE MONEY!

  • Anonymous

    LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK…SILLY CHILDREN… WITH AN INNATE LOVE OF WASTING PAINT AND WATCHING THE CLUELESS GOBBLING UP WHATEVER IS SPAT OUT BY THE ART PUNDITS…ADRIFT IN A LOST SENSE OF REALITY

  • Lara Rodriguez

    This is TOO GOOD

  • Anonymous

    Warhola-A-Hola was also about the market and cheap reproduction, not just fame. Fame was part of the whole package…which Warhol understood. Hirst seems to want exposure to equal fame. I think it is funny to use Hedda Hopper (a fame judge) as a dream spokesmodel for an anti-art-historical timeline to discover who got in bed with who to create Hirst. Maybe “immaculate” conception just means “everything was wiped clean and deoderized” during the event.

  • Anonymous

    Hirst and his product are a symptom of a disease that has metastasized into the veneer of “Western Culture”  And is but a single facet of many defects reflected in the mirror of this (our) Culture. While it can infect the adjacent subcutaneous fiber of the host observer to a great extent, it also has the potential to be as benign as the intellect of each observer allows it to be. Typically where there is smoke there are mirrors. Mr. Chu’s detailed and lengthy account of his “dream” may have roots in his own subconscious mirror and yet another example of the aforementioned disease.

  • Anonymous

    Pardon me …Mr. Yau. For the incorrect surname…

    • Michael Leong

      That you made the subconscious slip from “Yau” to “Chu” while writing about the subconscious needn’t be pointed out but allow me the apophasis.

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