Off The Handle

Why I’m far from enamoured with Jil Sander’s Paper Bag

Everyone knows that self-labelling is the reserve of unimaginative teen TV characters but if I had to box myself into an all-encompassing one-word category (two words in fact), then I would probably call myself a ‘Fashion Pragmatist’.

Not that my Fashion-411 hasn’t been a victim of mistakes: over the years I’ve incurred the wrath of skinny jeans and discovered that ‘bursting seams’ is more accurate name-wise when your thigh circumference is wider than a twig.

There was also a rather unfortunate headband phase in 2009. That May, I purchased an authentic duck feather band, which malted on my face at Trinity Ball and incurred a 2AM sneezing fit.

Shortly after Trinity Ball and armed with a value-pack of headbands that could turn even the flattest of hair into an Amy Winehouse-hive, one of my silver bands was stolen from my head… BY A MAGPIE.

And on the topic of hair, I won’t be forgetting my ultra-covetable 2008 Alexa Chung fringe, which after a three-week growth spurt looked more Rod Stewart than Alex Turner-WAG and Queen of MTV.

Anyhow, as a self-confessed Fashion Pragmatist, it goes without saying that the release of Jil Sander’s new and super-yearned-for It accessory, ‘The Paper Bag’, sent a chill up my spine (and not because of the three hundred dollar price tag attached to an object that I could otherwise have, free of charge, from my local McDonald’s.) No, for me, Jil Sander’s bizarre new tote brought up memories of a summer abroad, which ended rather dramatically with, yes, a paper bag.

The story dates back to last summer when I visited New York on a J1 visa. My visa permitted me to work for a four-month period and in that time I had several jobs.

My first job lasted merely two-hours and involved my overweight, sweat-drenched boss taking me aside during my two-hour training shift to ask if I had a boyfriend. When I said no, he clapped his hands together, ran off and returned with a plastic cup filled three-quarters with vodka. It was a short shift but it ended with him singing, ‘Oui, Je T’aime’ and me – obviously petrified – laughing awkwardly as I ran for the door.

Before I could make my speedy getaway however, the head cook Carlos had chased after me (also scary) and slipped a business card into my hand. He quickly and quietly explained that the card was for a restaurant on the Upper Westside. He told me to go there, ask for a job as a waitress; to tell them the surname-less cook ‘Carlos’ had sent me, and also that I should avoid coming back.

Cue my sceptical squinty face.

Diligently, I decided to head off and find a subway station. I caught the 3, travelled uptown, of course got lost, flayed my heels, blamed the cosmos for the lack of free Wi-Fi and eventually found my destination: a small Michelin star restaurant with a sign advertising fillet mignon and foie gras.

Given my earlier prospects in a downtown greasy spoon this place was divine. And better still, they needed me to start the next day.

Excitedly, I hit up Midtown to buy some comfy black shoes in Clarks. I figured that comfortable shoes were essential when tips were as high as two hundred dollars a night! My pupils had practically turned green and dilated into dollar signs. THIS REALLY WAS THE BEST COUNTRY ON EARTH!

Except, I didn’t receive tips for three-weeks, and when I did I discovered that newcomers were only entitled to twenty dollars per shift.

Two-weeks later I received my notice and discovered that I had in fact been filling in for a staff member on holidays. It was all news to me. I collected my final payslip which was less than the price of my comfy black shoes.

Down on my luck, I spent the following morning pounding the pavement with my CV and within 90 minutes was gainfully employed at a café on Broadway as a Barista-cum-Cashier.

I worked there for two months, and towards the end of my trip I decided that I would stop working around a fortnight before I headed home so as to catch up on sights and chill out before my final year in University. But my plan was extended following an incident featuring a Jil Sander-esque paper bag.

One Tuesday, during a busy lunchtime, I got pulled from the coffee bar and asked if I’d do tills. I was happy to oblige and headed down to the other end of the café and got to work. The line was moving swiftly and as I took cash from a woman who was speaking animatedly on her phone, I put her sandwich into a brown paper bag and placed the bag in front of her so she could take it and leave.

What happened next was unprecedented: the woman angrily slammed her phone onto the counter, stared at me and in little more than a whisper asked, ‘Are you retarded?’

Of course I thought I’d misheard and squinted with confusion. She repeated herself, louder this time, shouting, ‘ARE YOU RETARDED?’ Okay, so I had heard her.

I was baffled and more than a little taken aback. Who uses the word retarded and what, if anything, had I done wrong?

My boss – who was equally predisposed to chronic mood swings – ambled over to ask what was happening. Holding up the bag in front of the whole café, the woman shouted, ‘THIS LITTLE BITCH GAVE ME A BAG WITHOUT HANDLES.’

So there it was, I was ‘retarded’ because the café did not stock a larger variety of carry bags. Except, instead of my boss explaining this to the woman, he rounded on me instead.

‘WHY DIDN’T YOU GIVE HER A BAG WITH HANDLES,’ he demanded. Confused, I looked at him and said, ‘well, erm, we don’t have any. I don’t think we ever have.

Wrong answer.

Apoplectic with rage, my boss directed me to the back room where he shouted at me for ‘ratting him out in front of a customer.’ I was stunned: a woman clearly in desperate need of anger management classes had just called me ‘retarded’ because the café didn’t stock lunch bags with handles. And my boss agreed with her analysis.

I’d had enough. I finished my shift and told my manager that I would not be returning. And after a surreptitious left-to-right glance he said, ‘yeah, I don’t blame you.’

Last month when I saw Jil Sander’s new It bag I had two thoughts:

1) I’m so glad I live in Ireland where minimum wage is higher than $7 per hour.

And

2) Jil Sander has obviously never worked in the fast-food business.

Review: Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, 08.09.2012

I wrote this review for Irish art website arthub.ie. Click here to read the original.

“The best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She’s brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best [Damien Hirst] spot painting you can have by me is one by Rachel.”

For me, Damien Hirst does that thing that I think modern art does to a lot of people: he makes my brow wrinkle, my lips purse and my eyes squint. Who is this clown? In fact, while I’m at it, who’s Rachel?

As Britain’s reigning YBA (Young British Artist) Hirst has permeated popular consciousness like no other artist of his generation – certainly more so than his surname-less assistant Rachel. His work is characterised by its directness: it is deadpan and yet remarkably touching. It provokes outrage from some viewers and amusement in others.

In one article for The Mail on Sunday, the BBC art critic, Julian Spalding, described it as ‘con-art’ while The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment wrote, “For reasons that I don’t understand, [Hirst] insists on presenting himself as a fraud… And that’s a pity, because in Tate Modern’s full-scale retrospective he comes across as a serious – if wildly uneven – artist.”

Other critics have insisted that Hirst’s hypnotic power over the art world is simply a result of being famous. “Damien Hirst makes Damien Hirsts,” wrote Jerry Saltz in The Village Voice. “The paintings themselves are labels – carriers of the Hirst brand. They’re like Prada or Gucci. You pay more but get the buzz of a brand.” And this point, in my opinion, is the reason that Hirst is revered and reviled amongst critics. A buyer could easily purchase a ‘Rachel’ at a fraction of the cost of a Hirst. But while a Hirst is technically a ‘Rachel’, a ‘Rachel’ is certainly not a Hirst.

These are the eye-ball-spinning facts that send many critics into frenzy-mode. And they don’t stop at Spot paintings. In 2007, The Sunday Times restaurant critic, AA Gill, attempted to sell a painting of Joseph Stalin to Christie’s Auction House. The auction house rejected it. ‘They did not deal in Stalin or Hitler art,’ they said. Gill asked if that decision might be reconsidered if the Stalin were a Warhol or a Hirst. The answer was Yes. Gill contacted Hirst and requested that he paint a red clown nose over Stalin’s. Hirst agreed and the Stalin, which Gill originally bought for £200, sold for more than £100,000.

Stories like these have earned Hirst a reputation as a convoluted and talentless wheeler-dealer. Indeed, he is probably better known for the exaggerated headlines he’s generated over the years. Headlines like, “No, it’s not your fault you can’t see the genius in Damien Hirst’s work – there is none”.

And herein lies the problem: Hirst’s art is ubiquitous but more through newspaper headlines and photographic reproductions than through direct experience of the work. Last weekend, I visited the Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which accumulated more than twenty years of Hirst’s art, all of which was spread out over twelve rooms; finally offering London’s gallery-goers the opportunity to experience Hirst’s work directly.

It will perhaps sound naïve and a touch simplistic but what struck me throughout the exhibition were the colours. The vibrant aquamarine blues of Hirst’s cows and sheep immortalised in formaldehyde, and the overwhelming scale of his ‘spin’ paintings, and the austerity of his spot works.

Entering Room One, a large spot canvas stood propped against the wall as though the curators had forgotten to hang it. A hairdryer was positioned in the centre of the room and a ping-pong ball levitated above it. But the most interesting object in Room One was a photograph that hung on the wall, and which showed Hirst aged 16. Rather, it showed sixteen-year-old Hirst, a big smile across his face, posing beside a decapitated head in the Leeds University anatomy department. This photo, sandwiched in amongst early installation works was the first insight into what was to come: death, death and more death. Welcome to Hirst’s world of cadavers where sheep appear to be submerged underwater and sharks seem to swim on land.

Dead Head (1991)

For me at least, the exhibition was a little like a three-course meal. Room One was the starter. It looked great but lacked any substance. While the last room, Room Twelve was opulent and obnoxious. It was like a chocolate cake haemorrhaging more and more chocolate. After such a great main course in rooms Two – Eleven, it was simply too much.

As I moved between Room One and Room Two, Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990) came into focus. Small children clamoured around the glass, their hands spread, staring in as though enraptured. Their parents however tended to step back, wrinkling their noses at the smell, many of these looking disgusted. But A Thousand Years is the quintessential Hirst, with the cycle of life and death openly on display.

The work starts with a dead cow’s head, which lies flopped on the floor. When I visited the exhibition, the head had decomposed. Its eyes were missing, its fur was gone and the remaining flesh was red and sinewy. Blood leaked across the floor, thick and treacly like a raspberry syrup. In an adjoining vitrine a large white box stood in which maggots hatched and developed into flies, which then fed on the cow’s blood. Resting between the two vitrines was an Insect-o-cutor, which regularly zapped the bumble-bee-sized flies. It goes without saying that the air smacked with a subtle but putrid fetor.

A Thousand Years (1990)

From here, visitors had a perfect view of Hirst’s most famous and iconic work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) as well as one half of Hirst’s, Mother and Child Divided (1993), or ‘The Cows’ as it’s probably easier to refer to it as.

Hirst’s Physical Impossibility is probably his best-known work but the reproductions, which I’ve seen on the Internet, in books and on gift shop postcards, are a whole other kettle of fish (couldn’t help it!) when compared with the real thing. To begin with, it’s huge. And most bizarrely, it appears to be smiling.

Where Andy Warhol produced silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe and Chairman Mao, Hirst in a similar such vein brings one of Stephen Spielberg’s more terrifying on screen stars into the gallery space. Cue the music and prepare to come face-to-face with Jaws!

Of course, the irony here is that the killer, his teeth bared, mouth open, ready to swallow my hand and go back for my arm, has been killed. And in death, he’s vulnerable. Eloquently, Hirst parodies popular culture and makes an articulate point about death – the incomprehensibility of it. The sheer strangeness of it.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living (1991)

So, given how strange and terrifying death is for most, Hirst can’t help but scrutinise the absurdity of smoking in a culture obsessed with life longevity. In Dead Ends Died Out, Examined (1993), a large display cabinet exhibited lines of extinguished cigarette ends, all rubbed out, some standing up, each displayed like a prehistoric fossil or precious stone. It suggested how odd smoking was, how, in thousands of years when the twenty-first century is part of some ancient world, that archaeologists might frown trying to explain or indeed understand the curious and ancient habit.

Medicine cabinets were also prevalent throughout the exhibition and in one room Hirst set up a full-scale installation entitled Pharmacy, in which presses ran across the walls and sterile white tubes and packages with generic brand names were lined up as premeditative weapons against illness and other maladies. Above the installation, a green fibre-optic pharmacy cross flashed, as though the zone were invested with some kind of religious power capable of staving off death.

Pharmacy (1992)

Preceding Hirst’s Pharmacy was the butterfly installation, In and Out of Love. This room, like the proceeding rooms in the exhibition, lacked the brilliance of Hirst’s earlier works – the pickled cows, shark and sheep of Hirst’s early career. That said however, it was probably the most exciting piece in the show.

Heaters were installed in each corner of the room to create a muggy, balmy atmosphere. On white tables, bowls of rotting fruit were left out, and on the walls, cocoons hung from canvases while brightly coloured flowers grew below. Before I had entered the room I wasn’t entirely sure why I was queuing exactly, or why the entrance had been cordoned off with plastic sheets. It soon became clear though. Unlike A Thousand Years, where death and regeneration are experienced through the boundaries of glass, the viewer gets to enter the life-cycle process. And in this case, dozens of different size and colour butterflies flapped through the artificial fug and flittered across the floor. In later rooms, the same species and brightly coloured wings that had previously walked across my hand were recycled into large Gothic-like window cycles. It was odd. Something, which was so real only rooms ago, was now dead, glued down, painted over and encased in glass.

In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)

The last room in the exhibition will probably go down as one of the worst sights I have ever seen. The walls were gold, the works were clones and the only thing that separated each work from its older sibling was the fistfuls of diamonds slotted in or glued on where possible. The final work in the exhibition, which stood between the Gold Room and the gift shop, was Hirst’s 2006 piece, The Incomplete Truth. Here, a dove flutters upward like the Holy Spirit except that the spirit appears to have gotten lost and become wedged between this Gold Room and the gift store. All religious connotations as a result are inflected with irony as the curators play with idea that wealth and consumerism are the core religious beliefs of the modern retail society. Exiting, I couldn’t help but smile.

The Incomplete Truth (2006)

Hirst once scoffed to his good pal David Bowie, “I’d never show at the Tate, that’s for dead artists.” At 47, Hirst is far from dead but over the years his art has certainly begun to stale. The Tate exhibition dutifully reflected Hirst’s varied career and exposed the visceral nature of his earlier works in a way that no postcard or Google Image could. Works like In and Out of Love stunningly rejuvenated the white-wall space and drummed a sense wonder and excitement into the air. But the exhibition also exposed the older Hirst and his later work as repetitive and insipid, like a brand name that chugs on regardless of originality or flavour. More than anything however, this exhibition made me excited. It reminded me that amidst the convoluted ideas, the white-plaster walls and the people wandering around and pontificating the minutiae of Hirst’s Wikipedia page, that art’s a lot of fun. But especially when its creator is a toothy-teen posing with a decapitated cadaver.