News Column

Observer Magazine: When Damien Hirst's spot-painting of Mickey Mouse is sold, the money will go to Kids Company. Elizabeth Day meets him - and the charity's founder Camila Batmanghelidjh - to hear how art saved his own childhood, and why it's crucial for so many vulnerable kids

February 9, 2014

Elizabeth Day



When Damien Hirst was a child, he never thought you could get paid for making art. His mother was a shorthand typist and his father a car salesman. His parents split up when he was 12. After his dad walked out of the family home in Leeds, money was tight at home and although the young Damien loved drawing and art galleries, he thought he'd have to get "a proper job" to make a living.

"We ran out of money and we couldn't pay the bills so we had the electricity cut off and things like that," Hirst, 48, says now. "At school I tried to do technical drawing. I could see that could get you a job whereas I never thought 'artist' could be a job, I never thought artists could get paid."

It was an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer School of Art (now the Leeds College of Art) that convinced Hirst that being an artist could be a proper career. "That blew my mind," he says. Later he moved to London, went to Goldsmiths and his work was snapped up by uber-collector Charles Saatchi.

Today, Hirst is believed to be worth more than pounds 200m. One of the most famous artists of modern times, he is seen as the great populariser of conceptual art. It was Hirst who put a shark in formaldehyde, painted spots on a canvas and exhibited a skull encrusted with diamonds with a pounds 50m asking price.

But those formative experiences as a young boy in Leeds have left their mark. For all his success, Hirst still believes in the transformative nature of art for children. It is partly for this reason that, over the past few years, Hirst has been quietly building up his philanthropic work. One of his chosen charities, Kids Company, which works with disadvantaged and vulnerable children in London and Bristol, has benefitted to the tune of more than pounds 2m from his donations. Last month, it was announced that Hirst would be auctioning a painting of Mickey Mouse (reinterpreted as one of his iconic spot paintings) and giving the proceeds to Kids Company. In doing so, Hirst joins a select group of artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, invited by Disney to recreate the corporation's most famous mascot. Hirst's Mickey is expected to reach up to pounds 750,000.

"I've always believed art's more powerful than money," he says. "The money's just a sideline. I remember those people who burned pounds 1m and I thought it was disgusting. The K Foundation or something. . ."

Who became the KLF?

"Yeah." He nods vigorously. "You have to respect money."

Money and art have long been intertwined in Hirst's mind. And it is this that has brought us here today, to Science, the airy central London headquarters of Hirst's art and business empire. The office is filled with his works, including a giant pill capsule and an intricate mosaic of butterflies - even the lavatory is wallpapered with a Hirstian representation of pharmaceutical cabinet contents.

But perhaps the most arresting installation of all is sitting on the sofa next to Hirst in the form of Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of Kids Company, swathed in a bright crimson printed cloak and matching turban, with fluorescent yellow Crocs on her feet.

"The thing is," Batmanghelidjh says, by way of explanation, "I can go from the crack den to the palace and not change outfits."

"Me, too," adds Hirst. "Actually, I think I'm better in the crack den."

The two of them whoop with laughter.

Hirst first got involved with Kids Company in 2007 and has become one of its most generous backers. His donations have been a lifeline for a charity which gets 80% of its income from philanthropy.

"He never asked for public acknowledgement or anything like that," says Batmanghelidjh.

"So there was this funny world where I could see there were times when people were very envious of his success, but I couldn't publicly say: 'Do you realise how much this man is contributing?'"

Hirst interjects drily: "It's just not very rock'n'roll." He shifts in his seat, rolling up the sleeves of his leather bomber jacket and tapping his trainers on the floor. Hirst's attention is mercurial, his speech so rapid he seems constantly on the verge of impatience.

"A lot of people give stuff to charity to make themselves feel good," he says. "When I started off, I didn't have much money. I had an interest in art - don't know where it came from - and art helped me get where I've gone. So you do feel you want to give something back, but you don't feel you need to be acknowledged for that. It's a lot nicer to just do it."

But might there not be another reason - an attempt, perhaps, to rebrand himself? Over the past few years, Hirst has got divorced, gone sober and bought up most of Ilfracombe (arguably one of the most sedate places in Britain). Is his decision to talk about his philanthropic work connected to a deeper re-evaluation, an impending sense of his own mortality?

"I think I've constantly re-evaluated since I was seven," Hirst says blithely. "You get older, you get calmer, hopefully you get wiser, but death is unknowable. It doesn't matter how old you are, you still can't get your mind around it."

THE WORK OF Kids Company focuses on the needs of neglected inner-city children in London and Bristol, including the most deprived and at-risk whose parents are unable to care for them due to their own practical and emotional challenges. The charity's services reach 36,000 children and support 18,000 who need more intensive attention.

A key part of this is art therapy: Kids Company is the biggest employer of arts psychotherapists after the NHS, and Hirst has been actively involved in developing its

programme. "What happens to traumatised children is they freeze often in shock and one of the first things that goes is their verbal abilities to describe the situation," explains Batmanghelidjh. By working with art therapists, the hope is that these children can eventually "start showing the trauma through the art materials. . . and they tend to have very powerful, emotional pieces that come almost from the bleakest spaces that they've gone to".

She mentions the case of a nine-year-old girl in Bristol who, when Batmanghelidjh first met her, had been subjected to years of sexual abuse by a family member and who was "crawling on the ground and kind of howling and getting inside the cupboard in a foetal position". After six months of patient counselling and art therapy, "the transformation was extraordinary". The next time she saw the girl, says Batmanghelidjh, "She was sitting there with ribbons in her hair and was really girly-girly, with her box of little art materials cases all lined up."

Art for these children, just as it was for Hirst, is a necessary means of expression. In 2009, Batmanghelidjh launched an initiative in which she asked 125 schoolchildren to use a shoebox to recreate a room from their home. The results were startling: one in six of the shoeboxes threw up child-protection issues.

"They told us things like: 'I feed the rats in the cupboard'; they talked about firearms being hidden; they talked about sexual abuse," says Batmanghelidjh.

In order to raise the necessary cash to work with these children, she got in touch with Hirst and asked him to get a group of famous artists together to create their own shoebox rooms which were then stacked on top of each other like a tower block. The results were auctioned off, raising more than pounds 200,000.

"Camilla's great like that with those kind of ideas," Hirst says. "I mean, I get emails saying 'We're [auctioning off] artists' underpants, artists' shoes and artists' shirts and artists' mugs,' but to do something like that - making a tower block, keeping it simple - it's a great idea."

The children relate to Hirst's art, says Batmanghelidjh, because "his work is daring.

It has a 'Why not?' attitude". Hirst, too, sees the best art as unapologetically child-like, quoting Brancusi's famous dictum that: "When we are no longer children, we are already dead."

"I think a lot of people will say my work is childish or child-like and I think neither of those things is a bad thing," he says. "The world's a very complicated place and sometimes you look at it and you feel like a child and that's the sort of best viewpoint. In the face of the world, we're always children."

He encourages his own children - Connor 18, Cassius 13, and eight-year-old Cyrus - to create. Hirst split up from his wife, fashion designer Maia Norman, in 2012 and seems to have adapted well to single parenthood, moving his sons into a big house in Richmond, in the leafy London suburbs. (He also owns Toddington Manor, a stately home in

Gloucestershire, plus a farm in Devon and houses in Mexico and Thailand). Children, he says, can produce "much better" art than adults. "I took my eight-year-old when he was about five to my studio for the first time. And when we got back he got a TV box, made a circle, put a chair in the middle and taped an umbrella to it over the top and put his own drawings on the wall and he sat in the middle and said: 'My studio's better than yours.'" Hirst grins. "You just go: 'Wow.'"

Adults, by contrast, are more hamstrung by their anxieties. "You get an adult going: 'How many coats [of paint] should I use? What if it's bad?' And they get the fear, whereas kids just dive in, throw it all around."

As a child, Hirst used to visit a local museum in Leeds where works of art were hung in the same rooms as stuffed Bengal tigers and fish in huge aquariums. He remembers being stunned both by the scale and the anarchic atmosphere - both qualities which he tries to bring to his own work. For Hirst, size most definitely matters. "What I quite like to do is take [my children's] ideas to another level sometimes," he says. "My 18-year-old came home one day and he'd made a huge mosquito out of plastic boxes and it had a straw for a point and wings made with string, so I took them to the foundry and had it cast in bronze, the same size. It's not a massive effort to do that."

Perhaps not if your father has access to a foundry. The issue with a lot of the children Batmanghelidjh deals with is that they don't have anyone to take their art home to - let alone the opportunity to cast it in a precious metal. Instead, she encourages them to make objects and pictures that are sent as thank-yous to key donors. The vibrant, painted chair on which my Dictaphone lies is one such piece - it is covered with colourful patterns and every available bit of space has a message of thanks scrawled across it. Once, Hirst recalls, he took delivery of a table from Kids Company. "And they'd obviously been told to write something nice on it. So it was all: 'You're great, we love you, thank you so much' and then on the back someone wrote: 'Whatever.'" He snorts with laughter. "I love that."

It's the kind of rebellious attitude that would appeal to Hirst, who, when he first started out, was frequently described as the "enfant terrible" of the art world. That stopped, he says, "as soon as I started making any money, as soon as I could get tables at my favourite restaurants an hour before. . . You start off kicking against the system and then you become the thing to be kicked against. I definitely feel more mainstream than outsider now."

In fact, Hirst is often accused of being too mainstream. His work has been derided as shallow, overly commercial and derivative. Critics have lambasted him for not producing his own art - Hirst famously got his assistants to produce thousands of spot paintings that bear his signature - and for making money from what they see as little more than clever marketing. His diamond-encrusted skull, entitled For the Love of God, was condemned by the critics for its "vulgarity" and "decorative" nature when Hirst put it up for auction in 2007.

But one teenager at Kids Company saw it differently.

"The diamond skull inspired one of our kids to do a piece on how trauma kills off your soul," says Batmanghelidjh. "He'd seen the skull and then he started doing this whole funeral piece of skull heads. It was extraordinary - and it was all because of seeing Damien's diamond skull. He did this piece about how child abuse had basically murdered pieces of him. . . It was very haunting."

How does hearing a story like that make Hirst feel? "The word is 'inspirational', isn't it?" he replies. "In my mind, when I imagine my audience, it's always a single person looking at my artwork. I'm aware that I make things for people to hook on to and connect to, but it's vague in my mind, so when you hear about a specific which is definite and somebody connects to it. . ." he trails off.

For Batmanghelidjh, art has an even deeper resonance. She sees it as an example of "audacity. . . and I think the same cycle needs to be conceptualised in social care. You have to have the audacity to say: 'This is unacceptable' and come up with an alternative."

"The defence budget is pounds 42.4bn," continues Batmanghelidjh. "The Crossrail budget is about pounds 40bn. The child-protection budget is pounds 113m. And, actually, we've got a catastrophic epidemic of childhood maltreatment in this country. And every so often, you hear about it because there's an inquiry when a child dies, but the death of that one child represents only the pin of a needle compared to the scale of children who've been maltreated behind closed doors."

Hirst, sitting quietly on the sofa as Batmanghelidjh speaks, rubs his eyes with the tips of his fingers. I think briefly that he might be welling up. But when I look again, the slight moistness has gone and his gaze is re-focused. "The world's fucked," he says sharply. "What do you want me to say?"

Does he vote?

"I don't, no. Not yet," he grins. "I kind of like the idea and I think it's a cop-out not to, but I can't see anything to vote for."

He says people have a tendency to view an artist "like some sort of saviour".

"You get it with Hollywood actors, rock stars [people saying]: 'Don't sell out, don't sell out!'" he says. "There's a sort of desperation that money taints and poisons everything. . . Money's a big issue. It's as complex as love in the world today. As an artist, I think you should take that on and look at it."

Money and love: the two, in Hirst's mind, seem inextricably linked. It's not that he thinks of money as a substitute for love, but at least it's a start. At least it can help to change the lives of deprived and vulnerable children. It can give them a voice and a vision. It can, as Hirst would put it, go some way towards making the world that little bit less fucked.

Captions:

Spot on: Hirst with Mickey (2012). He joins a select group of artists, including Andy Warhol, who have been invited by Disney to recreate their iconic character

In the mix: Hirst, Camila Batmanghelidjh and a group of children create a spin painting

Mickey making: Roy Lichtenstein

Below: Andy Warhol's Myths: Mickey Mouse, 1981

Child's play: making art with kids. Below: the diamond skull, For the Love of God, 2007


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Source: Observer (UK)


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