Rating:Damien Hirst ABC. I know: what the…?!?! Before anyone traumatizes their little ones, please know that this is not truly a children’s book. At first glance it looks like a kooky, baby shower-appropriate curiosity. The cover pictures organized rows of brightly colored dots with a big, happy “ABC” superimposed. Cute! It’s a board book, so the laminated cardboard pages are just the sort of thing that a toddler could comfortably gnaw on. Fun! Meanwhile, parents get to inculcate a spirit of appreciation and reverence for living artists in their kidlet by sharing a book that showcases contemporary works. Win-win! EXCEPT… well… the dead, bisected, rotting animals ruthlessly “preserved” in formaldehyde vitrines. It dawns on us that this book is not meant for Junior. Or is it? On his own website, Damien Hirst describes the book tamely as “fun for all the family.” Who IS it meant for? Why did this book get made? I DON’T KNOW.
Maybe you’re familiar with Hirst and maybe you’re not. The short version is that he is the most famous/notorious member of the Young British Artists movement, known individually for various types of works, most notably The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living which is basically a tiger shark suspended in a huge dissection tank. This theme of dissection and preservation is a motif he carries through a series of works using different creatures. He’s also recognized as a mega-rich artist – a rare breed indeed – a feat achieved primarily through alliances with art collector Charles Saatchi, and more recently Alberto Mugrabi, that resulted in a wanton manipulation of an already corrupt art market. But Hirst has never apologized for bleeding out the commerce of it, declaring publicly that becoming a brand name was “a really important part of life.” There are 19 pages of salable products to browse in his online store. Personally, Hirst’s cannibalization of his own art is endlessly more fascinating than whatever it is I’m supposed to think about chopped up animals under glass.
This is the only way I can understand Damien Hirst ABC – as an extension of Hirst’s branding, another way for him to creep into cultural consciousness. He’s coming for the children! It’s almost like it’s a joke to himself. Put it in the cart along with the umbrella and tote bag. It’s vain and it’s also great satire, but is it meant to be? Doubtless Hirst is somewhere laughing – all the way to the bank.
If we are to talk about the book as a standalone item devoid of subtext, it’s true that it represents a cross-section (ha) of Hirst’s work. There are spots and spin paintings, butterflies and skulls. I do believe there is an intentional emphasis on the vivisected displays. I was anticipating P to stand for “Pill Cabinet” (pharmaceuticals being another of his meditations) but instead it was an image of This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home, in other words, a bisected pig. Nearly a quarter of the book’s images are of dead and/or butchered animals. Missed opportunity? Incomplete curation? Deliberate manipulation? The extreme (and disturbing) close-up of the shark’s head and open mouth in “J is for Jaw” sails it over the edge. The cheap scare exploits the reader. We know about the shark already. We get it. What else you got? Oh, more of the same?
Being horrid and revolting and confrontational doesn’t necessarily make something art. But it definitely does make it horrid and revolting and confrontational. It’s your call, but be forewarned there is some upsetting shit in here. Though considering it’s Hirst, that’s likely what you would expect.