Damien Hirst

Burning wheel


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Damien Hirst born 1965
Etching on paper
Support: 910 × 710 mm
Presented by Penny Govett 2007


This is one of the twenty-three etchings that comprise the first volume of two portfolios, In a Spin, the Action of the World on Things I and II. Each etching was made by the artist in London 2002, printed on 350gsm Hahnmuhle paper, proofed and editioned at Hope (Sufferance) Press, London and published by Charles Booth-Clibborn under his imprint, The Paragon Press. There are sixty-eight sets of prints, numbered 1–68 on the colophon page, and six proof copies. Tate’s copy is the second in the edition. Each set is accompanied by a colophon page and presented in a box with an original spin painting in household paint on the cover and the title and artist’s name printed on top. In addition to etchings similar to those in the first volume, the second volume of In a Spin... includes a photograph of the night sky that Hirst took using a long exposure, recording the movement of the stars in the sky caused by the earth’s rotation, and contributing to the notion expressed in the words: the Action of the World on Things. The artist first coined this phrase in 1999, when he was explaining the origin of his spot paintings (see AR00498), differentiating two strands of his work: ‘an involvement with death and decay, and ideas and life: the action of the world on things exists somewhere, and the colour exists somewhere else. And it’s fantastic.’ (Quoted in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p.119.) In the event, the imagery of In a Spin, the Action of the World on Things I and II unites these two strands.

As the title and the cover of the box indicate, the portfolio is based on the artist’s spin paintings, an ongoing series initiated in 1995 and titled with long strings of descriptive words, such as beautiful, insane, insensitive, erupting, liquid, ice, vice painting, and beautiful, shattering, slashing, violent, pinky, hacking, sphincter painting (both 1995, reproduced in Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York, pp.99 and 101). To make them Hirst stands on a ladder and pours paint onto large circular canvases as they are rotated at high speed by a spin machine in his studio. The idea of using spin art to make high art came from Hirst’s collaborative participation with the artist Angust Fairhurst (1966–2008) in the event ‘A Fete Worse than Death’, organised by curator Joshua Compston (1970–96) in Shoreditch, London in 1993. Curator Gregor Muir has recounted:

Using an inverted electric drill and a piece of wood onto which they could fasten sheets of paper, Fairhurst and Hirst set up a spin painting stall – an idea borrowed from a once popular children’s game using painting and an old record player cranked up to 78rpm. A spin painting cost £1 to produce and was signed by both artists on the reverse. In Hirst’s case, the idea proved too useful to be left behind, resulting in his subsequent ‘Spin Paintings’.

(Gregor Muir and Clarrie Wallis, In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2004, p.91.)

To create the images that make up In a Spin, the Action of the World on Things I, the artist attached etching copperplates to his spin machine, and drew on them as they rotated with a range of sharp tools that includes needles and screwdrivers (Wye, p.254). He utilised circular, square and rectangular etching plates of varying sizes – sometimes extending the circular pattern beyond the edges of the plate and at others entirely containing it within the plates’ margins. A combination of soft and hard ground etching has added painterly splashes of colour to the more regular circling lines. Hirst also wrote on the plates, inscribing the prints’ individual titles and the dates – late May to early July 2002 – when the plates were etched. The process of printing from an etching plate mirrors the original image; as a result of this several individual titles appear in reverse, and some prints include the artist’s corrections to his inverted numerals where he has scratched the date. The twenty-three individual print titles include the names of songs (P13034, P13035, P13037, P13139, P13040, P13041, P13042, P13047, P13053, P13055 and P13056) and the name of a band – Orbital (P13052). The title of P13041Global a Go-Go – for Joe – refers to Hirst’s friend, Joe Strummer, of the Clash who died suddenly in December 2002, eighteen months after releasing his album Global a Go-Go.

Many of these titles also make reference to rotation in one form or another; the first, Wheel meet again (P13034), is a deliberate verbal pun, transforming ‘we’ll’ into ‘wheel’. Other titles evoke domestic life – There’s more to life than making jam and having kids (P13051), Oh my God ...and for those really stubborn stains!!!!!??* (P13054) and the comic You threw a melon at my head (P13036) – and a colloquial expression for the point of sexual climax – Billy Mill roundabout (P13050). Hirst has a long-standing and passionate relationship to popular music, claiming that the Beatles have had a bigger influence on him than Picasso (Miranda Saywer, ‘Artful Dodgers’, The Observer: Music Monthly, April 2009, no.68, p.31). The format of the spin around a central point, and its small scale in many of these prints, recall the spinning of a record on a turntable. Hirst’s work on the plates, scratching with a sharp tool, could be likened to a disc jockey turning and scratching records and, with their repeated rings and occasional spirals, the prints themselves recall the grooves on a vinyl LP. In this, they follow the precedent of a drawing Hirst made in 1993. Beautiful Obsessive Sick Vortex (reproduced ‘Corpus’: Damien Hirst: Drawings 1981–2006, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2006, p.79), created using pencils of different densities, is a series of dense concentric circles that mimics the patterning on a vinyl disc.

Hirst’s use of a rotating machine to create art recalls the optical experiments of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) in the 1920s and 30s. But while Duchamp’s work with rotating discs – which included the use of spinning turntables as well as other motorised devices – constitutes a play on optical illusion, Hirst’s paintings and drawings made with the spin machine have a more aesthetic, expressionistic aim, as is indicated by the titles he appends to them, which always feature the word ‘beautiful’. This was made explicit in his 1994 installation exhibition, Making Beautiful Drawings, at Bruno Brunnet Fine Arts, Berlin, and in his re-presentation of the small-scale spin machine (accompanied by twenty-four drawings) in Germany in 2007. Visitors to the exhibition, Art Machine Machine Art, at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt had the opportunity to create a spin drawing on the pedal-powered turntable machine for themselves.

Further reading:
Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York 2004, p.254.

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2009

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