Yorkshire Sculpture Park again: Damien Hirst, handbags and hats

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the gift that keeps on giving. Although it’s featured in two previous posts – you can read them here and here – there’s still more I need to say about YSP. Our latest visit was in September last year, when we explored parts of the park that had so far eluded us. In the process we got acquainted with the work of Damien Hirst, not to a mention a monstrous handbag and a plethora of hats.

Let’s start with the handbag. Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos (b. 1951 in Greece) is fashioned from steel, although it’s painted to look like leather. Here’s what the YSP website has to say about it:

Bag of Aspirations is a vastly scaled-up version of the famous Birkin handbag made by French fashion house Hermès. This expensive and highly sought-after bag has become associated with luxury and exclusivity, and embodies the values and desires of a consumer culture. Lemos often investigates how such trends in society affect and frame women in particular, exploring the way femininity is constructed and defined by narrow and restrictive ideals of beauty and behaviour

Source: YSP website, retrieved 28/03/22

Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos

So, far from being frivolous, this monstrous handbag is making a serious point about 21st century society. Who would have guessed? Not me obviously: I saw the piece and just couldn’t help grinning. You see, Mrs P recently downsized her handbag but ever since has complained that it’s simply too small to hold all those bits and pieces that a girl just has to have with her at all times. I took one look at Lemos’s big beast of a bag and thought: there’s your solution Mrs P, but good luck carrying it!

But enough of this handbag nonsense, let’s move quickly on to Damien Hirst (b. 1965). Hirst rose to prominence in London in the late 1980s, and is one of the most notorious artists of his generation. He’s also said to be the UK’s richest living artist. His reputation precedes him: any man who displays whole animals pickled in formaldehyde and calls it art inevitably courts controversy, so we were intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.

First, it should be noted that no animals were pickled in the creation of Hirst’s works on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park! However, they do make one hell of an impact. Standing 10 metres high, the Virgin Mother looms over the landscape in which it stands, and given that the skin has been peeled back from half the torso to reveal a foetus curled within the womb it’s also very hard to ignore. The pose reportedly echoes that of Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. However, unlike Hirst’s sculpture, Degas’s piece is fully clothed, has no skin hanging off and doesn’t appear to be with child, so the resemblance – in my humble opinion, anyway – is somewhat superficial!

Virgin Mother by Damien Hirst

Do I like Virgin Mother? Strangely, I think I do, even though on one level it’s macabre, even a little grotesque. For me it argues that beauty is only skin deep, and that if we are truly to understand what is before us we need to be sure to look beneath the surface rather than rely on what is in plain sight.

On a somewhat similar theme, Myth enables us to see beneath the skin of a unicorn. And we learn that even iconic mythological beasties depend on a framework of bones, tendons and muscles in order to do whatever it is that unicorns do. Again, Hirst reminds us not to be seduced by appearances, however romantic, and to look instead for the earthy reality that normally lies hidden from view.

Myth by Damien Hirst

Altogether more challenging is the statue of a disabled child that Hirst calls Charity. The 7 metres high, painted bronze sculpture may look oddly familiar to anyone who was out and about in the UK in the 60s and 70s, being based on the Spastic Society’s charity collection boxes that could be seen at that time on high streets up and down the land.

But times change, and so too do judgments as to what society does – and does not – find acceptable. The word “spastic” is today regarded as grossly offensive, and the charity that bore its name is now called Scope. And the design of its collection box also looks as if it comes from another, less inclusive age, an age when disabled people were regarded merely as objects of pity, poor vulnerable souls totally dependent upon the charitable handouts of others.

One may question why Hirst chose to imitate a negative image of disability that many people now find offensive. Crucially, all is not as it seems. Seen from the rear we notice that the gigantic collection box has been broken into, with coins scattered around and a crowbar left behind. Clearly this is not in any sense an homage to the original collection boxes, but an invitation to think about how society views disability.

The break-in fundamentally affects the meaning of the sculpture. For me it says that the negative portrayal of disability inherent in the original collection boxes – which reflected views that were widespread within British society at that time – was in itself an act of theft, stealing the dignity and self-esteem of the very people the boxes were designed to support. Other interpretations are possible, and Hirst’s piece remains controversial within and beyond the disabled community. But although it’s not a comfortable image, if the artist’s primary intention was to stimulate debate and reflection about disability Charity certainly succeeds.

The Hat makes the Man by Damien Hirst

Another painted bronze by Damien Hirst – The Hat Makes the Man – is altogether more playful, suggesting that, although he normally keeps it well hidden, the artist does have a sense of humour. This bizarre, disjointed piece was apparently inspired by a tiny Max Ernst drawing dating from the 1920s. It features a plethora of felt hats, interspersed with the occasional straw boater and random sawn-up pieces of wood. Sigmund Freud, the famed founding father of psychoanalysis maintained that hats are a symbol of repressed male desire, so I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that – although I haven’t a clue what it means – this sculpture really appealed to me!

Network by Thomas J Price

Another of the sculptures that I liked a lot was Network, by Thomas J Price (b. 1981) There’s been a lot of controversy in the UK recently about who is – and is not – represented in public art. In particular, there have been loud protests that although sculptures of men who made huge fortunes from the slave trade in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries can still be seen, their victims are invisible. For this reason Price’s three metres tall sculpture of a casually dressed man of African (Caribbean) heritage studying his mobile phone seems to hit just the right note.

One of Mrs P’s favourite pieces was Wilsis by Jaume Plensa (b. 1951 in Spain), one of a series of heads of young girls from around the world, with eyes closed in a contemplative state. Intriguingly the view from the front appears traditionally three dimensional, but viewed from a different angle it’s plain that the statue is almost flat. Standing at over 7 metres tall, Wilsis makes a stunning impact within the lightly wooded landscape.

Next on this whistle-stop review of our most recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, consider The Garden of Good and Evil by political activist Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956 in Chile) . It references secret one metre square detention cells (aka “black cells”) reputedly used by the CIA around the world. It is partially hidden within a lake, reflecting the fact that these secret centres are also hidden.

The Garden of Good and Evil by Alfredo Jaar

The Garden of Good and Evil makes uncomfortable viewing once you understand what has inspired its creation. But let’s end this post with a feel-good sculpture. Sitting, a monumental work by Sophie Ryder (b. 1963) is fashioned from wire and divided into two sections by a split that is clearly visible from the side. The anthropomorphic figure combines the head of a hare with a body modelled on Ryder’s own, and dominates the surrounding parkland.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Ryder is fascinated by hares, and features them frequently in her work: you can read more about what they mean to her here. But while I fully understand that for her the piece has great symbolic significance, for me the main point is that Sitting is exquisitely beautiful. This plainly isn’t true of all the sculptures at YSP, some of which are more intellectually challenging than aesthetically pleasing. And it is this sheer range of artistic endeavour that makes Yorkshire Sculpture Park such a great place to visit. so Mrs P and I will be making another return trip very soon!

FOOTNOTE TO REGULAR READERS OF THIS BLOG

Spring is in the air, the days are getting warmer and my excuses for not painting the bedroom and tidying up the garden are wearing a bit thin. So, for the next few months, I intend to post on this blog every 14 days – rather than weekly as now – publishing early on Wednesday mornings (UK time). Weekly posts will resume in late autumn…always assuming, of course, that I’ve finally finished decorating the bedroom!

21 comments

  1. tanjabrittonwriter · March 30

    This sculpture park is truly amazing–such a vast array of artistic creations. Thank you for sharing the images and your interpretations. I don’t always feel the need to analyze the meaning of art, and simply enjoy the creations instead. Maybe that’s intellectual laziness, which can’t be said about you.
    Virgin Mother reminds me very much of anatomical drawings and models of pregnant women used in medical education. Maybe you remember the old anatomical atlases or models that allowed you to peel open one layer after the other, thereby displaying what lay underneath.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      I suspect my tendency to analyse is part of a (so far fruitless!) search for the meaning of life. I’ll let you know if I ever find the answer 🙂.

      Regarding the Virgin Mother I think the artist would have felt at home in the company of the pioneer anatomists of earlier centuries…I suspect that, to some degree, elements of his work are inspired by their endeavours.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. kaymckenziecooke · March 30

    Wishing you a successful painting break. We are in the same boat. But I have one more month of consolidated writing ahead of me in order to make a deadline, before I can lend support to Robert’s painting tasks. He is stalwart in his lone (for now) mission. Of course, we are heading into Autumn, as you head into Spring.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      I can safely say that I’m looking forward to my painting task with the same trepidation that I approach a trip to the dentist! But I guess it will all be worth it in the end? Good luck to you and Robert with your own decorating endeavours!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Paddy Tobin · March 30

    I expect the bedroom painting will be absolutely wonderful, inspired as it must be by these visits to the sculpture park! Was there not a suggestion that Hirst’s Charity, with the crowbar and scattered coins, was a suggestion that some such charities were oftentimes for the benefit of the charity organisers rather than for the, in this case, the children put forward to elicit donations? Fraud and theft, in other words? And, I am completely with Mrs. P regarding Wilsis!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      My researches for this post didn’t throw up that theory, but I can see how it might have evolved. I know nothing of the Spastic Society / Scope, but the activities of some other charities – as well the behaviours of some of their “boots on the ground” – do occasionally give me cause for concern. Anyway, enough of this idle chatter, I must see if I can track down my paintbrush and overalls 🙂.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Laurie Graves · March 30

    What a fantastic post! So enjoyed seeing the various pieces and reading your insightful commentary. Damien Hirst certainly gives the viewer a lot to think about. I do understand the need to take breaks from time to time. I, too, have cut back so that I can finish my YA novel. Happy painting! Looking forward to your posts whenever they come out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      Thank you so much! Regarding the painting, I have to say that – in relation to my good self – the words “happy” and “painting” never belong in the same sentence (except, maybe, “I’ll never be happy again until I’ve finished that ****** painting!”) 🙂

      Hope you’re making good progress with the new novel. Best wishes!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves · March 31

        Thank you, thank you! Yes, painting is tedious. But the results are wonderful. So fresh.

        Like

  5. Carol Ann Siciliano · March 30

    Your post thoughtfully escorts me through challenging artwork that I might have resisted but for your commentary. Thank you! And good for you for setting writing boundaries. I’ll savor your posts whenever they arrive!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      Thank you, Carol Ann. I found that researching and writing this post increased my own appreciation of the sculptures we’d seen, so everyone’s a winner! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Marie · March 30

    I love sculpture trails so really enjoyed this – although I didn’t love all the pieces!!! If I had to choose, I’d go for the bag and the hare!!
    Go luck with the home decor – you know of course, that once you begin, the list will never shorten!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      I’m glad you liked some of the sculptures. The beauty of a good sculpture trail is that features pieces that appeal to a wide variety of tastes. There were some other pieces that I didn’t include in this or my previous two YSP posts because they just didn’t work for me, leaving me wondering “What?” or “Why?”

      Regarding the painting, I know just what you mean. There’s not much incentive to start, as I know once I finish there will be yet another urgent job following up close behind 🙁.

      Like

  7. Fascinating Walk around the Sculpture Park – thank you. The Garden of Good and Evil took on a totally different look having read your explanation. Eerie.
    We are sliding into Autumn and so house maintenance is beginning here also, starting with removing mould from the paving stones, followed by a paint job of the patio. Ghastly but has to be done. Looking forward to sitting back with bubbles and enjoying the view once completed.
    Good luck with yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 31

      Yes, that sculpture is disturbing, and definitely not a feel-good piece.
      I hope your own house maintenance jobs go well. Just focus on the prospect of bubbles!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. nationalparkswitht · April 1

    The larger the handbag, the more stuff you accumulate and carry. I guess that’s not a bad thing if it’s full of aspirations instead of coins, packs of mints and other detritus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 1

      I’ve reached the grand old age of 66, and have managed with just a wallet in one pocket and a bunch of keys in another (and, more recently, a mobile [cell] phone in a third). But I’m sure Mrs P would tell you that this is exactly the problem, and I’m never really prepared for anything! What do I know? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. alison41 · April 6

    Thanks for sharing your visit to YSP. One thing is for sure: Damien Hurst is not for me. But hey – different strokes for different folks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 7

      I found Hirst’s stuff to be OK in small doses – principally as thought-provoking conversation pieces – but I definitely wouldn’t seek out his work if I were seeking sculpture that is relaxing and/or aesthetically pleasing!

      Liked by 1 person

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