The buck stops here. A long line of artists who have used costly materials in their art comes to a head – covered in diamonds.
Art loves luxury, and whether it's diamonds, gold or Swarovski crystals, more artists than ever are using increasingly expensive materials in their work.
The art market is booming. Luxury goods are expanding into new international territories, the bling-bling fashion trend still resonates on the hip hop scene, and artists are enthusiastically echoing the obsession with ostentatious materialism – sometimes with nuanced irony or humor, sometimes to raise eyebrows or question the importance of the material at hand.
Epitomizing this phenomenon of show-off art, Damien Hirst has made the most expensive artwork in the world. Entitled 'For the Love of God,' it is a platinum cast of a real human skull encased in 8,601 diamonds. It cost $24 million to make, with Jay Jopling's White Cube gallery footing half the bill. The 50-carat diamond mounted on the forehead is estimated to have cost $6-10 million alone. The asking price for this luxury artwork is $100 million.
For lesser mortals, White Cube is selling limited-edition silkscreen prints of the work. They range from 'For the Love of God, Believe' (edition of 2,000; $1,800) and 'For the Love of God, Pray' (edition of 750; $10,000) to 'For the Love of God, Laugh'; 'For the Love of God, Shine' and 'For the Love of God, the Diamond Skull' – complete with diamond dust. The last three come in editions of 250 and cost $20,000 each, plus tax. Online shoppers can "add an item" to their shopping cart as if they were buying a paperback from Amazon.
The skull is "the biggest single undertaking by a jeweler since the crown jewels," claims Hirst. "I just want to celebrate life by saying, 'To hell with death,'" he quips. "What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence?"
The original skull from which Hirst's platinum skull was cast is believed to have been part of a Victorian collection. Scientific tests indicate that it is the skull of an 18th century male who died in his thirties. The teeth, one of which is missing, were extracted and inserted into Hirst's sculpture. (Hirst has given the original skull – which he keeps at home – a set of gold replacement teeth, instead.)
Of course, only an artist of Hirst's status and personal wealth would be in a position to collaborate with the Bond Street jewelers Bentley & Skinner on such an ambitious project. Indeed, the jewelers, who have been supplying diamonds to the royal family since Queen Victoria's era, say that Hirst's skull contains three times more diamonds than the imperial state crown.
Such luxurious art is, as with luxury itself, all about eminence and privilege.
'For the Love of God' recalls Marc Quinn's sculpture Self (1991), a life-sized cast of Quinn's head filled with nine pints of his own frozen blood. By alluding to the passing of his own life in such a chilling way, Quinn reflected upon the preciousness of blood. Hirst's skull, however, subverts this preciousness by using the earth's most expensive rocks. It flaunts luxury in the face of death.
Hirst follows a long line of artists who have used costly materials in their art. Nor is he the first to create a bling skull. The Italian artist Nicola Bolla started making skulls out of Swarovski crystals as far back as 1997. They sell for the far more reasonable price of $13,000. Bolla's motivation, however, was mainly the novelty of using crystals in sculpture. "I am inventing a new type of sculpture; it's like using bronze," says the Italian artist. "I make my sculptures like a jeweler makes jewelry."
Bolla painstakingly creates his sculptures without the sponsorship of Swarovski. He describes one of his latest works as "an imaginary suicide in a jail for fashion victims." Everything in the installation – from the door to the furniture, stool and noose – is made from crystals. "The message is about money, gold and the power of fashion and art," he explains. "It's about death as an extreme aesthetic act."
Death and luxury also coalesce in 'The Most Expensive Chair In The World – To Die For' (2005), an electric execution chair with leather straps adorned with diamonds, by the British artist John Angelo Benson. It references Andy Warhol's screen prints of the American electric chair and suggests an intersection of death, greed and desire.
"The electric execution chair is recognized the world over," says Benson. "It's a symbol of man's judgment in exacting the ultimate price: death. Diamonds, on the other hand, represent an enigmatic allure that commands a different price, one that gauges our sense of value and desire of exclusivity to excess. This work could be seen as a warped paradox from my critical and sublime thoughts of today. If you think about the most expensive thing you posses, it's not a Rolex, a car or a house. It's your life!"
As art now features in the media more widely than ever before, some companies are extremely keen to sponsor artists. This clever marketing strategy gives them visibility, publicity and kudos. In one such example, the Brazilian-born, New York-based artist Vik Muniz was contacted by De Beers to see whether he would like to use their diamonds in his illusionistic photography. The result was his Diamond Divas (2004) series of silver-screen stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Lauren and Brigitte Bardot. "Somebody said to me, 'What would you do if I gave you 10 million diamonds?' I thought doing something really gross or disgusting would be too obvious, so I did something very glamorous. The idea is that people would buy it as a social experience, since having pictures of diamonds gives people the impression of having the diamonds themselves."
Indeed, the series proved so alluring that it sold out. The Diamond Divas have become hot property. In May, one of the prints of Marilyn Monroe, from an edition of 10, was auctioned at Christie's in New York for $156,000. (The first market price for a similar work by Vik Muniz is around $47,000.)
But are artists like Muniz compromising their integrity by accepting such blatant product placement? Muniz, who has used valueless materials such as junk, dust and oil in other series, admits he felt uncomfortable making his Diamond Divas: "I come from a very poor background in Brazil, and I had such emotional problems with it that I could never show the Diamond Divas series on its own. So I have the Caviar Monsters, such as portraits of Frankenstein and Dracula, to go with it."
Some artists argue that the expensive materials are far from being the raison d'être of the artwork, that they merely add another dimension. For instance, Kevin Francis Gray produces his smaller sculptures in editions of seven: gold-plated, silver-plated, black, white, red, dark green and dark purple. What differentiates the gold-plated and silver-plated editions from the other five, which are made in "the colors of Buddhism," is that they look, according to Gray, "more ornamental and desirable. Artists are a bit like magpies," the Irish artist says. "They're attracted to things that look very beautiful. As a sculptor, I think gold and Swarovski crystals can enhance sculptures, but the fact that they're expensive materials isn't important. The material simply adds to what the sculpture is saying."
Invited by Swarovski to use their crystals in his work, Gray's sculptures include urban youngsters with crystals that flow from the tips of their hooded jackets to their trainers. Earlier pieces have included six aggressive dogs in Swarovski crystals circling an absent victim and a young boy sitting in a Buddha position, ambiguously looking as though he could be about to meditate – or shoot heroin. "All my work has a gritty, urban edge. Choosing something glitzy and glamorous like Swarovski crystals, which only very wealthy, posh people can afford, creates an interesting dichotomy."
However, Gray concedes that the glamorous aspect of his sculptures might be more appealing to some collectors than the meaning behind the sculptures themselves. "I'm sure that there are some buyers who think, 'Oh, that would look really brilliant outside my bathroom in my apartment in Kensington.'"
It is partly thanks to the boom in the art market that this sort of costly art is being made. Artists like Bolla have a waiting list of collectors, which means that – with or without sponsorship – artists know they have buyers for pieces that are expensive to produce.
This is, after all, the era of Millionaire Fairs in cities such as Cannes and Moscow, where the "luxury communication" company GoldVish has exhibited a gold mobile phone studded with 2,000 diamonds, selling for $1.2 million. It is, according to GoldVish, "an incredible piece of art." For multimillionaire oligarchs interested in state-of-the-art technological bling, luxurious, fashionable art by Sylvie Fleury, Seth Price, Bolla or Gray also fits the bill.
This all signals a radical shift in the art scene since the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. Back then, artists celebrated the humblest of materials, such as coal and wood, to express egalitarian, anti-elitist values.
The use of luxurious materials in art has never been so widely embraced since Andy Warhol used gold leaf and diamond dust in his work. But as with Warhol, it's often tempered by cutting sarcasm. Think of Terence Koh and his bronze "turds" plated in 24-carat gold. Is Koh mocking the obsession with luxury in this work, or are his turds (reminiscent of Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Machines), quite literally, expensive shit?
The use of gold in art has become such a relevant and complex topic that P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York presented an exhibition last winter entitled 'The Gold Standard,' which explored gold as "a symbol of money, power and spectacle."
"Bling is simply one aspect that some of these artists touch upon," says Walead Beshty, co-curator of 'The Gold Standard' at P.S.1. Beshty refers to a massive gold CNN necklace by Thomas Hirschhorn. "His piece not only calls attention to the way gold is used in CNN's corporate icon, but it replays the world of advertising and information power into a rhetoric of bling – or, more exactly, the adolescent, masculine announcement of power through a shiny icon."
Whether this trend in bling art is seriously conceptual, deeply ironic, a politically motivated criticism of Western values, or just wretched excess, one thing is sure: it dazzles.