|Aztec turquoise skull at the British Museum|
|Decorated skull from Paupa New Guinea|
|Jim Riswold |
(Tribute to Damien Hirst)
Given the theme of this blog, the skull post was an impending inevitability. To an outsider, this may seem like some kind of morbid voodoo. Fact is, ever since Damien Hirst created his "For the Love of God" skull in 2007 (see top of this post), observers in the art world have been rattling on about how he was not the first to ornament the human cranium. Hirst's skull is cast from platinum, encrusted with 8,601 real diamonds and has its original teeth. The ostentatious artwork went on the market for about $100 million.
Did Hirst commit an act of imitation? Yes, dammit! Of course he did! Ever since the first antelope was drawn on the first cave, homo sapiens have been aping each other. In the contemporary art world, this trait seems to be reaching its zenith. On a planet that is over-saturated with imagery, our visual memories trickle down into our imagination and it's often hard to be indifferent (the etymology dictionary refers to imagination as "faculty of the mind which forms and manipulates images"). We are living in a remix culture, where image recycling is paramount and most ideas can be traced one step backwards. What’s more, our collective unconscious has been known to trigger parallel ideas across cultures separated through time and space.
Hirst claimed that his inspiration came from the turquoise Aztec skulls which he had seen at the British Museum (John LeKay thought otherwise). Interestingly, folk art has proven to be the biggest stimulus pot of all; effortlessly appropriated (or misappropriated?) by the bigwigs of the Westernised art world. So what does the jewel encrusted skull represent? Did Hirst put the final spin on this concept, pushing the limits for a valid reason? As mortals, we do perhaps have trepidation about our own death and so the skull alerts us to this inevitability and because of the superfluous diamonds, maybe it acts as a mirror to our self-obsessed, gluttonous society.
Within the traditional cultures that the skull has supposedly been appropriated from, death is not thought of as a gloomy affair, but rather a sacred journey of transformation. The line between life and death is not strongly drawn. Ancestors are thought to be present as spirits among the living. They have a great influence on a person’s daily existence and it is essential to ensure that the spirits remain well disposed. The ancestors' skulls are adorned in a spiritual ritual that has nothing to do with the profane nor are they intrinsically thought of as Art for that matter. Isn't it ironic?