At Davos, Hirst Took Admirers for a Spin

Last week, Ukrainian megacollector Victor Pinchuk's eponymous foundation hosted the fourth Davos Philanthropic Roundtable, complete with an all-star cast: Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, Qatar Museums Authority head (and daughter of the emir) H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and Brazilian philanthropist and collector Bernardo Paz. The event also had a few honored guests, among them Damien Hirst, whose artwork Pinchuk has reportedly collected in depth, and who was on hand to instruct attendees on how to make their very own spin paintings using machines designed by Hirst and shipped to Davos specially for the event.

If Pinchuk's roundtable could be said to be a sort of sideshow to the many high-powered panels that constitute the official Davos program, Hirst's demonstration might be seen as something of a sideshow to the sideshow, the high-art equivalent of the genial guy at a kid's birthday party, demonstrating how to make balloon animals. (Though with Koons present, Hirst certainly wouldn't have dared to do that.)

Hirst has become known for testing the limits of what can be considered art, and for making what could be deemed puckish gestures on a grand scale. Witness his so-called Beautiful Inside My Head Forever auction at Sotheby's in September 2008, which seemed to thumb its nose at the fall of Lehman Brothers when it made a cool $200 million. In an Economist article on Hirst, Sarah Thornton, who has written extensively on the artist, quotes Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada saying of the Sotheby's extravaganza, "I think it was an incredible conceptual gesture, not a sale."

After the one-man auction, Hirst very publicly turned to figurative painting, halting production on his best known series: the spot paintings, the butterfly paintings, the medicine cabinets, and the spin paintings. "I've always had this romance with painting," Hirst told Thornton when she visited his studio in fall of 2009. "It's like a conceptual idea of a painter. The spin paintings were about an empty studio and the fear of painting."

"I really like making [the spin paintings]," read a Hirst quote that accompanied a press release for the Davos event. "And I really like the machine, and I really like the movement. The movement sort of implies life. It's the way the atoms move inside our bodies, it's the way the planet moves that we stand on. And the way all the other planets in space move around ours. Every time a painting's finished, I'm desperate to do another one."

Hirst is often compared to Warhol, and perhaps this was a Warholian gesture, with Pinchuk's Davos event being momentarily transformed into Hirst's very own Factory, where everyone who happened to drop by was enlisted to make something. One thing is for sure: everyone who was present appears, from the photographs, to be having a good time.

For Hirst, the Davos event came on the heels of the opening of an exhibition of his new work at the new Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong, where photorealistic paintings of butterflies produced by his small army of assistants, hang next to a baby skull cast in platinum and covered with pink and white diamonds.

The Economist reported in September that Hirst's market suffered after the Sotheby's sale, in part due to the recession, and in part as an aftereffect of that legendary auction. But when his exhibition opened in Hong Kong, Hirst told a Bloomberg reporter that his market touch was returning. "For a few months after [the Sotheby's sale] my sales were very rocky," the artist said. "Things have picked up now. The whole of Asia is opening up."

The artist recently told Bloomberg Television that he will open a south London exhibition space in two to three years and he is looking for a more central gallery in the British capital. One wonders, will spin painting demonstrations be on the menu there?

In Hong Kong, Hirst told a Bloomberg interviewer, "If you get away with bad art, it becomes good art." His spin-painting colleagues at Davos were hardly professional artists, or even assistants; perhaps it is in the hopes of following Hirst's own dictum that they are smiling.