At this very moment, in London’s Tate Modern, stands a young calf, dead and immaculately preserved in formaldehyde solution. The bullock is positioned loftily above the heads of visitors on a looming plinth made from solid Carrara marble. A placard on the wall refers to it as ‘False Icon, 2008′.
It is a decoy for its older brother: a similar artwork featuring a fully-grown adult bull. Installed about this latter animal’s head is a circular gold disc. The same richness adorns the bull’s hooves and horns, and plates the frame encasing this whole set-up.
If it can be realistically suggested that the golden calf of biblical report was only ever the domain of fiction, this realisation of this historical religious icon is no insignificant event. In reality, ‘The Golden Calf’—one of many headline-grabbing artworks by Damien Hirst—is but a single jewel in the artist’s illustrious career.
In 2008, ‘The Golden Calf’ was the star attraction when Hirst exhibited hundreds of new artworks in Sotheby’s London auction rooms. In the same week that the American bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, marking the start of the global financial downturn, Hirst’s prize bull went under the hammer for £9.2 million. It was a display of invincibility on the world stage and marked the start of Hirst’s ascension from mere mortal to god-like being.
You’d be forgiven for walking past the artist in the street. He hasn’t the most distinctive of faces and rarely makes the front page. In wealthier circles, he is the embodiment of divinity itself; the man with the Midas touch. Everything he touches sells for millions.
It is a fitting context for his art. If the works don’t resonate with sheer material worth then the aura of the artist himself lends their religious connotations a suitable relic-like status. If Hirst recreated the wooden cross that bore Jesus to his death, I wouldn’t be surprised if it matched the cultural and monetary worth of any 2000-year-old shard.
At a recent literary gathering, author Jonathan Franzen quipped that “art is a religion”. If any artist embodies this sentiment, it is Damien Hirst.
Damien Hirst is showing at Tate Modern 4th April – 9th September 2012.