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Damien Hirst conquers Mexico: the biggest collectors in the country are lining up to buy new work by the British artist

Other pieces, including a new version of the shark in a tank, have sold to Korea and the US

Damien Hirst’s first exhibition in Latin America, “The Death of God”, is now at the Galeria Hilario Galguera in Mexico City. By the time the show of 28 new works closes in August, it will have been on display for a staggering six months, an unusually long run for a commercial gallery. Then again, it’s not every day that you get to show the world’s most successful artist in your brand new space.

The works on display range from Hirst’s now familiar vitrines with animals suspended in formaldehyde, most notably a new version of the shark, to six new variations of his spin paintings (unlike previous versions, these are in dark colours and have a skull in their centre). Trademark Hirst themes such as religion, love, death and decay are once again the order of the day. “There is nothing here I do not like immensely,” says the artist. “I like tragedy. Tragic hope.”

Despite Hirst’s phenomenal commercial appeal, on the eve of the opening, the dealer showing his work, Hilario Galguera, is unsure how well it will do. “There are plenty of people in this country with the money to buy Hirst; the problem is not a lack of money. The problem is a lack of sophistication and that upsets me.”

One major Mexican collector expressed similar doubts. César Cervantes, director of the fast food chain Taco Inn and one of the biggest collectors of contemporary art in the country (he was the first to buy a Hirst work, an edition of the print series, The Last Supper, a few years ago) said: “I think that the decision to bring a Hirst show to Mexico is risky. There are only about 20 serious art collectors in this country and I am not sure that any of them are interested in buying works by Hirst.” But the perceived risk paid off and Hirst proved once again that in today’s market, he can sell pretty much anything he touches. According to Frank Dunphy, Mr Hirst’s business manager and accountant, the show has done exceptionally well; 16 of the 28 works sold before the opening although not all to Mexican buyers.

Mr Dunphy says that The Wrath of God, a reworking of Hirst’s tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde (this time the work was manufactured in Germany under the artist’s supervision) has been bought by the Samsung Museum in Seoul for $4m (see facing page). “Representatives from the museum made several visits [to Mexico] and finally bought the work for $4m. They also acquired The Inescapable Truth (a vitrine of a dove suspended as if in flight above a human skull in formaldehyde) for $3m,” says Mr Dunphy.

While The Art Newspaper was visiting the show, Jorge Vergara, president of the vitamin company, Omnilife, co-owner of the Chivas USA football club and one of the most successful music producers in Mexico, arrived to see the exhibition. He told Mr Dunphy that he wanted work to display in his company’s headquarters in Guadalajara and was interested in The Sacred Heart of Jesus, a bull’s heart punctured with silver needles inside a plexiglas cylinder. Mr Dunphy suggested that he might also like The Blood of Christ, an installation of paracetamol tablets speckled in blood and arranged in neat rows inside a glass and metal cabinet. It would work perfectly in the corporate headquarters of Mr Vergara’s vitamin company, Omnilife, suggested Mr Dunphy. Mr Vergara apparently agreed. He bought both works for $3m.

Another major contemporary art collector, Eugenio López, heir to the Grupo Jumex, which is the largest producer of bottled juice in Mexico, and the person behind the Jumex Collection, the most important private collection in the country, is apparently interested in buying one of Hirst’s latest butterfly paintings for $800,000. Speaking on the phone from England, ten days after the show’s opening, Mr Dunphy says: “We are currently negotiating with several Mexican collectors who are very interested in buying these.”

Other Mexican collectors interested in buying art from the show include Enrique Coppel, chief executive of his family’s company Coppel, one of the largest firms in Mexico, which deals in cars, furniture and footwear.

Despite the strong sales, some Mexican collectors initially expressed reservations about Hirst’s industrial production techniques. According to Hilario Galguera,

“one of the very big collectors was dubious about Hirst’s method of working with so many assistants. I told him that Hirst supervised every detail and invited the collector to come to the gallery. When he arrived, he saw Damien taking a bird out of one of the tanks and cleaning it very carefully, then he retouched a detail on a painting. Damien is a perfectionist, if something is not quite right he destroys it.”

US collectors appear to have no such problems with the artist’s working methods. According to Mr Dunphy, a bank based in Monterrey, California, with a big corporate collection, is now finalising the acquisition of several other works, and he also says that “the painting Skull with Watch has sold to a US collector for $400,000. I could have sold it for $600,000, but that’s fine. Paintings are the easiest works to sell; everybody wants them.”

“The prices and conditions of sale were set by Hilario [Galguera] after protracted negotiations with Hirst’s other galleries, [Gagosian in New York and White Cube in London] but I helped him,” says Mr Dunphy.

What Damien Hirst says

“In England,” says Damien Hirst, “if I did a show like this they would think: ‘Oh God, it is so obvious.’ Putting a skull in a painting is too obvious. Because a skull means death. But here they understand that a skull is a metaphor of transient life because Mexico has such a long history loaded with imagery. In North America I would also have problems with this show because they are so afraid of death, they hate this, they cannot look at a skull; they feel like they are under attack. It’s more to do with a sense of humour failure than anything else.”

This may help explain why Hirst has decided to show his latest work in Mexico, where he now spends several months a year with his wife and three young sons at his house in Buena Vista, an exclusive beach resort which is already the holiday home of ten artists (including Hirst’s neighbour Julian Schnabel). Hirst says he is planning to set up a new studio there. “I have some land at the back of the beach house but I am going to build a studio more like a gallery to put things in; a big space where you can play. I already have one Mexican assistant and my intention is to bring George Taylor, who has run one of my studios in England for the last five years, with me.”

“I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas, but I wouldn’t like a factory to produce the ideas.”

Hirst does, however, concede that he needs to keep evolving as an artist. “I am going to stop producing the kind of work I am making now,” he says. “I feel I am not going anywhere any more with these works. They look nice and they can sell forever but I am not moving forward.”

“I have taken many new ideas from newspapers,” he says. “I am working on new installations of my work. I also want to move more towards painting. Painting is so poetic, while sculpture is more logical and scientific and makes you worry about practical concerns like gravity. At the end of the day you want young artists to think you are cool. But you have to grow old gracefully. I loved the way the Beatles split in 1970 at their peak; it was brilliant! It is horrible to see people get old.”

“I am deeply in love with art and I always say that art is about life and the transience of life but it also deals with money. Frank [Dunphy] always says that art should chase life while the art world chases money; if you start chasing money with art the whole thing is fucked. And I think that is good advice. I have been closer than other artists to that. Too close for comfort sometimes. I think it comes from having no money when I was a child. From not having money for food and seeing my mum upset by that and having the electricity cut off because we couldn’t pay the bills after my dad fucked off and left us in debt.”

Hirst’s interests now stretch far beyond simply producing art. He is a keen supporter of young artists and a major collector. This September he will organise a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London drawn from his own collection; it will include work by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Sarah Lucas, among many others. “I like to help artists,” he says. “I look at my early work and I think it is terrible. I was not like Picasso who did amazing paintings when he was 12; when you are young, you make horrible mistakes, so everybody needs a chance and I want to help. My collection will eventually go on show at Toddington Manor, [the Gothic mansion in Gloucestershire he bought recently for £3m. According to Mr Dunphy, English Heritage has asked Hirst to spend another £8m on restoration of the site]. I want to transform it into a curiosity museum like the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London with lots of different things: my art collection, my work and my own stuff. I collect Native American totem poles, different skeletons, jars, woolite sheep, lots of other things. I would rather put my own work on display there than in a museum. It seems to me that museums display young artists to attract visitors but I feel one should only put one’s work in museums in the winter of one’s life.”

“When people say I am a great artist, I just do not believe it. The older you get, the wiser you get and I try to ignore all the hype. I worry about my children. I read a lot about famous fathers who did not care. My oldest child who is ten years old says he wants to be famous and I tell him it is not a good ambition, that I did not want to be famous, I wanted to make art and then I became famous as a result. You have to try first to do something good, I tell him, but he insists he wants to be famous like his dad. It is far more important to be good than to be great.”

A show of new work by Damien Hirst opens at White Cube in London in June 2007 at the gallery’s Mason’s Yard space.

For information on Hirst’s Mexican show:

www.galeriahilariogalguera.com

originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Damien Hirst conquers Mexico'