I can deal with London perfectly well when I'm not thinking about it. Never the slightest problem in finding my way from A to B, with or without a map. Find somewhere decent to eat, or take a rest, find something to see.... just try me.
Or, rather, don't try me. If I have to actually SHOW someone these things, all my knowledge mysteriously evaporates. Today, a woman asked me the way to the bank and I couldn't remember whether the bank in question was left or right. Duh. (I only live here). When I met my friend P. who'd come to London to visit the Tate Modern, I forgot which Tube stop to use. Double duh (I was only there last Saturday.) Then, I couldn't remember which station exit to use. Triple Duh. (I only go there several times a month.)
Luckily P and I have known each other since we were both 14, so I don't think she thought I was losing my mind.... . So we found the Tate, and went in to see the Damien Hirst art show.
Is Damien Hirst well known outside Britain? I suspect not. Yet, according to the Tate, he's "our greatest living artist" and his work commands enormous prices.
He likes to create displays of pickled sheep and pickled sharks....
And he has done a skull studded with diamonds,
and set out many glass cases full of surgical instruments and other medical things...
(photo: White Cube)
And he's done a room out like a pharmacy, with shelves of medicines...
And in his early days he did lots of paintings of dots...
And used thousands of butterflies, which were flying around in a room and crawling over withered fruit, as you see here...
He makes rather intricate and decorative paintings using their wings.
And he's very, very rich, and massively hyped.
In the past, both P and I had attended shows of massively hyped artists, only to find that the artists were pretty good after all, despite the hype. We both like contemporary art, so we hoped for insights into the human condition, or new ways of looking at visual things. We hoped to be moved, to admire, to think twice about what we'd previously taken for granted.
It was very crowded, and P and I mingled with the crowds and dutifully looked at the sharks, cows, dots, cigarette-butts, butterflies, and lots of items that seemed to have come directly from a medical supplies shop.
There were a few eye catching and skilfully designed objects, in particular large paintings made of butterfly wings, and yet they were not beautiful when you looked at them closely. There was too much sticky looking gloss paint, too many bits of wing that were damaged or painted over. Things which had been naturally beautiful had been made to look rather tacky.
There was a certain interest in examining the dissected cows,
... although my vote would go to the Grant Museum for dissections or pickled specimens.
And finally, we emerged into the inevitable gift shop, and found clocks, necklaces, tee shirts, wallpaper and so on all decorated with images from the show. Much of it is attractive, most of it is typical museum shop stuff and priced accordingly -here's the link if you want to see it too.
Then this wallpaper caught my eye.
It was a limited edition, and the price was NOT reasonable - at £675 a roll. That's 834 euros, or $1,042 US at current conversion rates.
I kept looking and found many other items, similarly priced - thirty thousand odd pounds for a set of plates in the butterfly designs, for instance, or around £35, 000 ($54,000) for a print of one of the butterfly pictures.
Any sympathy or empathy I had with his work disappeared when I saw the outrageous price tags. Instead, I felt like a punter, a mark or whatever slang term you care to use.
Now, I don't blame Hirst for capitalizing on his flair for publicity and getting lots of money. But I couldn't help thinking of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.
In this story, an emperor is tricked into believing that he is buying a suit of wonderful clothes whereas really he is buying - nothing. He has spent a fortune, and he is nude, and nobody dares to point it out to him except one little child.
I didn't say any of this to P. Instead I say, "So what do you think of Damien Hirst?"
"He's a good businessman, isn't he?" she said. "Er .... shall we go and have a cup of tea?"
Then I knew P and I saw eye to eye on this particular thing.
So I directed her (uncertainly, wasn't quite sure of the way - after all, I've only been there about 1,000 times) down the riverside to the Royal Festival Hall where we had a very nice cup of tea!