New Delhi: Even in India, the land of a million pickles, Damien Hirst’s preserves are something else. Over the years, Hirst has marinated, in huge tanks of formaldehyde, whole cows—also whole tiger sharks, lambs, bulls’ heads and zebras. And then he has sold them, for millions of dollars, as art.
But none of that preserved fauna will be on display at Hirst’s first ever exhibition in India—a two-day glimpse of 14 works that will go on auction, along with 209 other items, at Sotheby’s in London on 15-16 September.
Back in London, the larger set of works, titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, does include the trademarks of one of the world’s most commercially successful artists, such as a shark and a zebra suspended in formaldehyde, as well as a late cow with golden horns and hoofs, estimated at $16-24 million (Rs70-105 crore). At The Oberoi hotel in New Delhi, though, the only forms of extinguished life are clouds of dead butterflies pinned onto their canvases.
Art of the matter: Visitors are reflected in a Damien Hirst exhibit with butterflies and enamel paint on canvas at Sotheby’s Delhi exhibition. Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
“We only brought in works that have been selected to appeal to Indian audiences,” says Maithili Parekh, a deputy director at Sotheby’s in London. Then she considers the question further and translates: “The real reason also is one of respect for the Indian viewer, to not just bring in a dead cow as art.”
This sanitization of the extreme avant-garde could be seen as wise prudence on the part of Sotheby’s, especially with a days-old episode of intolerance towards art—the vandalism of an M.F. Husain exhibit in Delhi on Sunday—fresh in the public mind.
But Hirst has tended to draw protests even elsewhere in the world. In 1994, a vandal dodged security at the Serpentine Gallery in London to pour black ink into a formaldehyde bath containing a sheep. Activist groups have also consistently accused Hirst of cruelty to animals.
The 14-work selection has come to India, Sotheby’s says, to attract a growing base of Indian buyers who are interested in international art. It may also be a teaser to upcoming Sotheby’s auctions of Indian art. Tyeb Mehta’s Falling Figure with Bird is also on display at The Oberoi, to be auctioned later in the year.
Not surprisingly, Hirst’s 14 works in Delhi—estimated to be worth $3.78 million—are protected by snug blankets of security. “We had armed vans escorting the works from the airport to our climate-controlled facility here,” says Parekh.
Sotheby’s has also retained two private firms to provide security both within and outside the hotel. “As a policy, we didn’t want to use the same external security firm that the hotel uses,” Parekh says. “So, apart from our own security guys who flew down from London, we have these two private contractors.”
These guards will stand, in their bulging blue suits, outside the Oberoi exhibition hall. “Our insurance for these works is so strict that it even determines who is in the room when they are being taken out of their crates,” Parekh says.
A Mint reporter was allowed to be on hand as Sotheby’s installers from London unpacked the Hirst works with ginger hands encased in purple gloves. The exhibition consists of 13 paintings and one bronze sculpture. Dead butterflies speckle five of the canvases. There are no skulls—another signature Hirst piece—but there is a painting of one, surrounded by bottles of pills.
The Hirst works in the Sotheby’s auction are part of another art-world shake-up as well. “Usually, artists exhibit in galleries and only then send the art to auction, once it has been seen,” Parekh says.
Instead, these 223 works, produced over two years in an Andy Warhol-like factory of art, will bypass Hirst’s usual galleries altogether and proceed straight to auction. That has called the survival of the gallerist’s traditional role, as the intermediary between artists and their public, into question.
“It’s a very democratic way to sell art,” Hirst had said earlier, in a statement. But one industry publication, The Art Newspaper, revealed last week a possible reason for Hirst’s new strategy: More than 200 pieces of his work are still lying unsold at his galleries in London. “It’s true that this list has somewhat dubiously made its way to the press,” says Oliver Barker, a senior specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby’s. “But one of the galleries has said that they’re delighted to have this deep inventory of his work. It’s like an oil refinery having oil stocks—that’s not a bad thing.”