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March 18 2012

Secrets of the studio

In pictures: For a groundbreaking book, 120 of Britain's most celebrated and emerging talents have granted rare access to their work spaces

April 30 2010

Freak show

With sculptures of the 'pregnant man', a woman with massive, surgically enhanced breasts, Michael Jackson and Pamela Anderson, what is Marc Quinn's latest exhibition all about?

Marc Quinn stands proudly over his latest sculpture. It's brilliantly detailed, sensual and a little bit rude. A woman is having sex with a man from behind. At first sight, it's a simple conceit, a reversal of traditional gender roles. Only when you look underneath the bronze couple do you realise there's something more going on. The woman has a penis, the man a vagina.

Five years ago, Quinn made a series of sculptures of people with disabilities whose body defined them – most famously Alison Lapper, armless and with short legs, displayed on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth. Now he's made a new series featuring people who have defined their body, using plastic surgery and hormones, to turn it into something that reflects their inner self.

So, in the case of models Allanah Starr and Buck Angel, she was originally a he and he was originally a she, and to an extent he is still a he and she is still a she, and that's before we even consider the possibility of a third sex.

Quinn has always been fascinated by the human body and the dubious concept of normality. "The world is so weird that you don't have to make things up, you just find things." He discovered Buck Angel on the internet by typing into the search engine the words "plastic surgery" and "transformation". Buck knew Quinn's work and loved the idea of posing for him. He told the artist about his friend Allanah, who had gone the other way and with whom he had made a film. The movie was a first in the pornography world.

Alongside Buck and Allanah are sculptures of the Catman, actor Pamela Anderson, Michael Jackson, Thomas Beatie (better known as the pregnant man) and adult "breast entertainer" Chelsea Charms. All rebuilt themselves in different ways. Beatie was born Tracy LaGondino and underwent a sexual reassignment procedure in order to become a man. But he kept his female reproductive organs and became pregnant in 2007 by artificial insemination. He is now expecting his third child. The huge white marble sculpture of him is astonishing: George Michael meets Michelangelo's David. The David reference is deliberate – it's not simply the scale, but the sense of innocence and purity. Which makes even weirder the fact that the bloke with the beard is pregnant. More than anything, it's Beatie's pants that make this such an intimate and human work – the creases, the pulls in the crotch, the way one leg rides up. "Sculpture's all about drapery, isn't it?" Quinn says. "Recreating the movement of fabric in marble is one of the classic sculptural themes." He looks up towards Beatie's pants as we speak. "What's interesting is that the scale puts us in a child-adult relationship to it. So it infantilises us, the viewer."

Quinn established himself in Charles Saatchi's Sensation show with Self, a frozen bust of his head made from 10 pints of his own blood. It was grotesque and gorgeous and, as so often in his work, turned the world inside out. Like much of the art produced by his generation, it dealt with time and degeneration – keep it at the wrong temperature and it melts into its original form. His father was a scientist, and Quinn combined art and science to ask existential questions. What are we? What can we become? What is natural and unnatural? In a later project, he created a cryogenically frozen garden from flowers that in the natural world could never grow together.

One project tends to evolve into another. So the frozen garden led to his recent acid-trip garden paintings, and the sculptures of disabled people led to those we are looking at today. His transsexuals also ask basic biological questions, he says. After all, every embryo starts out female. "It's the whack of testosterone that makes the clitoris turn into a penis. So that's the weird thing. We're like, 'How strange' but every boy's done it!"

Allanah Starr has arrived at the studio to see her sculpture for the first time. As we walk up from the basement, I ask Quinn if he has shown his two young children the sculptures. "No, I don't think it's a good idea for a bit…" He smiles. His 19-year-old daughter likes them. "See, 19-year-olds are more sophisticated than when we were 19," says Quinn, who is 46. "Because of the internet, people know more than they did 25 years ago."

Starr is a formidable woman; elegant, sexy and smart. Only her lips look as if they've had too much work done. She is here with her tiny, elderly Cuban mother who lives in Miami. Starr talks in a sultry, singsong voice, while her mother smiles sweetly to compensate for her lack of English. First, they visit the sculpture of her and Buck naked holding hands. "Amaaaaazing," Starr says. "Oh my God, I didn't realise they'd be in bronze. Incredible." Then the four of us are face to face with the more explicit work. Starr's mother walks round, inspecting it closely. "It's so beautiful," she says gently.

"The genitals, are they there?" Starr asks Quinn. He nods. We get on our knees to look, diffidently feeling our way along the sculpture until we find an erect penis. "Oh yes! They are!" she shouts with delight. It's strange how close the world of high art can be to that of Eurotrash. "I like the idea that you have to lie on the floor to see them. Hopefully at the gallery people will be lying on the floor, too," Quinn says.

I ask Starr what her mum thought about the sex change. "Oh, my mother's really open-minded, really liberal." Did it cause any problems when she went into the pornography industry? She translates the question and answers for her mother, who smiles beatifically. "No, it's Allanah's life. She has to do what she wants."

Starr has incredible greeny-brown eyes. Are they natural? "Oh yes – that's the only thing left. Hahahaha!" She pauses. "Well, except the penis." Starr, 35, started cross-dressing in her late teens. She just didn't feel right as a man. She's had 55 operations, including six on her nose and six on her breasts. What are her plans for the future? "I'm just going to continue getting more surgery." She grins. Would she ever get rid of her penis? Quinn says she would lose her USP if she did, and she nods. But there are other considerations, aren't there, such as having a family? "I don't want children," she says. "Maybe when I'm older I will have it removed to normalise myself for old age."

Across the room are sculptures of Michael Jackson's head and hand. Jackson had agreed to model for Quinn, but died before he made it to the studio. The sculptures are based on paintings. Is the hand a separate sculpture because his glove became so iconic? Oh no, Quinn says, it's an allusion to the sculpted head and hand of Constantine the Great at Rome's Musei Capitolini. Quinn studied art history at Cambridge University. "I love ancient art. As an artist, I think you're influenced by absolutely everything you see. You just suck it all in, then out comes something else."

What does come out is incredibly diverse. As we move towards the next new piece of work, we pass a sculpture of a prisoner being tortured at Abu Ghraib, part inspired by Goya's crucifixion, a contorted Kate Moss with her legs over her head, phallic, psychedelic flower gardens – "Drugs for people who don't take drugs, like myself, or porn pictures your mum can look at," Quinn says.

He shows me a painting of Buck Angel when he was a girl. She was broad-shouldered, big-boned and extremely pretty. Angel, who is in Holland when I speak to him, laughs uneasily when I say the word pretty. "I guess you could say that – I don't really know. I modelled for a little while, but I wasn't your average fashion model, that's for sure. They had to pose me like a mannequin because I didn't have that femaleness about me. I just couldn't be comfortable in my body. I damped down those feelings by drinking a lot and doing drugs through my early teens. I always knew I wanted to be a guy." Did he think he'd do something about it? "No… Transgender is huge now, but when I was young, there was no knowledge of being able to have a sex change." He (as a she) had relationships with women but didn't identify as a lesbian. He didn't really identify with anybody or anything. He was suicidal. "My parents just assumed I was a gay woman. They weren't happy with that because of the stigma of having a gay daughter."

Fifteen years ago, at 28, he had a sex change. He had only one operation – on his chest – and the rest was achieved through testosterone injections. How would he describe himself now? "A pretty buff, macho kind of guy," he says in a voice that is still a little high-pitched. When Angel changed sex, he lost most of his friends – mainly lesbians who regarded him as a gender traitor. All in all, though, he says, things couldn't be better. "I now love my life and love being in my body." His relationship with his parents is also different. "They treat me like their son. I have totally reconnected with my family." Why does he think that has happened? "Because I am happy with myself, and really that's all your parents want."

Sexuality is such a strange thing, he says. As a woman he was a confirmed lesbian. As a man, he now often sleeps with men. But that is largely in a professional capacity. "For business purposes, the majority of my customer base happens to be gay men, and they don't really want to see me with gay women." To complicate issues further, Buck is married to a woman, the tattoo artist Elayne Angel.

He says he's 100% comfortable with his body these days – if he weren't, he would not have allowed Quinn to sculpt him. Does he not want a proper penis (he has an embryonic one – the result of the testosterone)? No, that's the funny thing, he says, he'd always thought the point of a sex change was to own a penis, but over time he's come to regard male genitals as merely symbolic or cosmetic. "What's the point of having a penis that is not fully functioning and does not even really look like one? Also, there's a chance of losing your orgasms, and that was the deciding factor for me. For me, I am a man and that's what I'm trying to say to the world – my genitals do not define me."

The sculpture of Chelsea Charms is lifesize and disarmingly small. She is virtually all bosom. What interested Quinn was the fact that, apart from her breasts, she has had no plastic surgery. "With these absurdly huge breasts and a totally natural face, she is like a hallucination." Does he find her beautiful? "It's a different kind of beauty. It's so classical, in a way – like a Venus of Willendorf come to life."

Chelsea Charms and Pamela Anderson seem to be cut from the same silicone-enhanced cloth. But for Quinn, the actor has rebuilt herself in a different way. While Charms has gone beyond the boundaries of convention, he says Anderson has adapted herself within social norms. "What Pamela has done is use surgery and transformation within the mainstream cultural context, whereas everyone else in the show has struck out on their own."

When I contact her to see what she thinks of the project, Anderson sends me an email declaring her love for Quinn and his work. "I didn't even ask what he wanted to do with me. I would have done anything." What does she think of the final piece? "I like that it's raw. Not perfect. I think that's what makes it interesting. Sexy isn't perfect."

Around the corner is a bust of the Catman, formerly known as Dennis Abner of San Diego, a man who went to extremes to express his inner feline. "He comes much more from the touring display tradition," Quinn says. "He works with Ripley's Believe It Or Not! He's much more a performer and this has less to do with his sense of self. I think."

I'm staring at Chelsea Charms's breasts. It's hard not to. People are bound to call this project a freak show, aren't they? "It's not a freak show," he protests. He sounds upset. "That's what someone who's a complete idiot might think, but it's actually a very human show. It's not about freakness, it's about humanity." I think it's about both.

He knows he'll get those headlines, though, doesn't he? "I don't care. I think they are extremes of how people live now, and you look at those very tabloids that will say they are freaks, and this is the fodder of those papers."

We're sitting in the studio, drinking tea and talking acceptance. A few yards away is the painting of Buck Angel as the beautiful girl he once was. Angel had told me that the moment he realised his parents had finally embraced him was when he won transsexual performer of the year. "I rang up my dad and he said, 'Wow, that's great – I have a son who's a porn star!' And I thought, 'How could I ask for any more?'" Now, he says, he's moving away from pornography into education. "I'm speaking at universities. I really love doing my sex work, but it's kind of put a stop to people taking me seriously as an educationalist because people have such a weird thing about the sex industry and people who work in it, as if we don't have a voice that's capable of going beyond sex work."

Starr's mother says she is delighted Allanah has found herself. Occasionally, she is aware of people staring at her daughter as they walk down the street. It outrages her. Some people are so quick to judge. "So I just stare back at them," she says.

Michael Jackson, Pamela Anderson, Buck and Allanah, Thomas Beatie, Catman, Chelsea Charms – all of them are human works of art, Quinn says. Yes, he has made the works that will fill the gallery, but the originals were sculpted by themselves and their surgeons. "All art should be of the moment, with something eternal about it as well." He looks over at the sculptures. "I like the idea that if you left them in the desert and somebody found them in 5,000 years, it would probably tell them something about the society we live in now."

What would this show tell future generations? He smiles. "About the possibility of transformation. About how people could make their own worlds. Buck's genes say he should be a girl, but he's decided he doesn't want to be. It's culture triumphing over biology."

Marc Quinn: Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas is at the White Cube Gallery, London N1, from 6 May until 26 June. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 14 2009

'Anyone can be Rembrandt'

Since he made his name in the early 90s, Damien Hirst has been less an artist than head of a multinational. In the process, he's earned an absolute fortune, if not critical respect. But why should he care?

Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst – Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world's flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past. But, he says, this is also the old Hirst. After all, like most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. "I gave up painting by 16," he says. "I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then."

I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius?

He shakes his head. "No, I don't believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt."

Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn't come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. "Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don't think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It's about freedom and guts. It's about looking. It can be learned. That's the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings."

How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? "A long way. But then again, there's no need for that sort of thing today." He's got a touch of the Arthur Daleys about him – the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.

It's mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his upcoming exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it's bound to be controversial. For starters, he's paid £250,000 of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What's more, he's pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years, he has painted alone in his garden shed in Devon. He didn't show them to anybody, didn't think they were any cop, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I'm not quite sure how to react. He's  right when he says he's a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they're spooky – it's the best I can come up with by way of a compliment. At times, they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there – skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero Francis Bacon by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay. There's certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.

Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He's always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. "The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings," he says. "And I just got to a point where I thought I can't avoid it any longer." Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn't getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.

Damien Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 90s. In 1992, he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi's old gallery on Boundary Road in St John's Wood, London. The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart's signature image.

Hirst was the star of Saatchi's Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc QuinnMarcus Harvey, et al) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles, and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn't simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock'n'roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono. He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.

The funny thing is, Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the back-room boy – more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries' work called Freeze. Another irony is that the young Hirst had been rather conventional – not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. "I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She'd just say get back in the house. My mum made Never Mind The Bollocks into a plant pot – she put it on the gas, with a rock in the middle, and it just went whooosh! – because it said bollocks." Today, she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.

He was not an academic boy, only just squeezing into sixth form, where he did two A-levels and ended up with an E in art. He was initially refused entry to Leeds College of Art & Design, but eventually got a place. He was later turned down by St Martins, before studying at Goldsmiths. When he first moved to London, Hirst worked on a building site for two years.

He was 23 when he curated the Goldsmiths show. It featured some of his own work, but his cluster of painted boxes went pretty much unnoticed. In 1991, he got his first solo exhibition – In And Out Of Love featured rooms with live butterflies, hatching, flying and dying, with dead specimens stuck on canvases. From early on, his curating skills were evident in his work – the labelling, the titles, the layout, the display cabinets. To an extent, the presentation was the art.

In the late 90s, he became Britain's own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture – and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he'd had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.

Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For The Love Of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14m to produce. Again, Hirst's timing was perfect, the symbolism acute – after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100m, although it later emerged that the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer's gallery, White Cube.

Earlier this year, he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby's auction that raised a reported £111m. He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world. Hirst thinks it's about time his dealer, Jay Jopling, was given a tougher ride by artists. "He always said I've got your best interests at heart, but he doesn't really. It's like he's got a harem, and I've got to be monogamous, and you just go, 'Fuck that' after a while." (Hirst has always liked his swear words.)

It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. "The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me – go out with a bang." He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.

Hirst verges on the evangelical when it comes to money. He says that he has spent so long trying to make Sarah Lucas, his favourite contemporary British artist, appreciate the value of money and herself. To no avail. "She'd be like, 'I don't give a fuck, give me what you want' and I'd be like, 'You should sell your work for more' and she'd say, 'I don't care. I'm not interested in all that shit.' I was like Sarah in the beginning, but then I had to give a fuck at some point." He comes to a frustrated stop. "I kind of admire her for it," he adds wistfully.

He was jealous when he found out that Rachel Whiteread's work was selling for £100,000 at a time when his was going for £20,000-£30,000. "I remember telling Jay to put my work up to £100,000. And he said to me, 'But I can sell anything you make' and it dawned on me: 'It's cos you're selling it too fucking cheap.' He said, 'It's going to alienate your collectors' and I said, 'I don't care, just do it.' We didn't look back. When he sold something for £100,000, something changed – you get taken seriously by a whole new group of people and they start buying."

Isn't there a danger that the money becomes all-consuming; that the sole measure of a piece of art is what it sells for? "You just keep an eye on it. Selling out is very different from dealing with cash." What is selling out? "My business manager always says you've got to make sure you're using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash." Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.

Has he ever sold out? "I think I've got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings for ever and laughed all the way to the bank."

Was he taking the mick out of the art market? "No. You can take the piss out of art, but I don't think you can take the piss out of the art market. All markets are serious."

So why did he stop mass-producing? In the end, he says, he found it too depressing – it began reminding him of his own mortality. "With the work I was doing, I couldn't see a route to the end of my life. I was doing these sculptures, and the people who work for me have always stayed the same. Then I thought, as I get older, they're going to get older and fucking older… And then I'd be getting old and have to get young people working for me so they could lift the sculptures."

Also, the paintings were no longer relevant to him. "The spot paintings were all about immortality. They're just a total celebration of when you're twatted, when you're taking drugs, when you're under the table. In that moment, you feel you can live for ever. Then you just get to the point where you think you've got less time in front of you than behind you."

There's a story about the spot paintings, possibly apocryphal, that I love – that Hirst started selling kits to make up the paintings for tens of thousands of pounds. In other words, he was charging people a fortune for painting them themselves. Hirst grins. Of course it's true. It came about when a man said he'd like to buy a spot painting painted directly on to a wall and Hirst asked how he planned to do it. "He said, 'Oh, just make me a certificate and give me some paint and tins. So I went through it in my head and worked it out – the certificate certified ownership of the artwork, the artwork must be painted by an authorised representative and the spots are these dimensions, these colours, and the spot painting can't exist in two places at the same time. I bought my own tins, mixed the colours, put it all in a box, a brush for every tin, so you get 150 tins and 150 brushes, compass, pencil and a certificate."

He must have thought that was funny? He shakes his head. "Every time I had a new idea, I realised it had been done years ago. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, all the minimalists, they all had certified artworks."

Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200m. What does he do with all his money? Well, there's his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. "I've got a lot of projects, and there's lots for charity as well." Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he's hardly gushing about it. I can't help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn't overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they've been in trouble.

He's more likely to tell you about the horrible things he's done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn't reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago, and says for a long time he was insufferable. "The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat." Shortly before his great friend Joe Strummer died, the musician had had enough of him. "He was going, 'Ignore him. Everybody ignore Damien. He'll go away.' I was just talking spew."

He tells me about a recent conversation with a friend. "I said, 'When I met you, I thought you were really cool' and he went, 'I thought you were a twat.' I went, 'What?!' And he said, 'I thought you were arrogant and stupid and pushy.' Lots of people say that's the impression I give off. I can't quite work out what I do – maybe I just show off – but it always surprises me. I think we're getting on like a house on fire. Maia [Norman, his partner] says it about her friends – they were intimidated by me or I was aggressive or arrogant or they don't like me. 'Who is that twat?' "

And when he was doing drink and drugs, he says, he was hideous. How? He can't remember all the details, so he turns for help to Jude Tyrrell, director of Hirst's company Science Ltd.

Tyrrell: "You were more in your face when you were on the booze and coke."

Hirst: "Yeah, you wanted to give up a few times."

Tyrrell: "No, only once."

Hirst: "Was that the knob out in Dublin?"

Tyrrell: "No, the knob with the chicken bone was fine. It was that girl's 18th birthday party. It was a posh boutique hotel and Damien was there, very drunk and abusive. It was just the kind of thing you don't want to see. Had he continued as he was, I don't think anybody could have stuck around. Also, he would have lost the art. He just wouldn't have been able to do it. He'd be staying up for two or three nights, and I'd have BBC news arrive, and I know how much that costs, and I'd be sending them away because he'd just not turned up."

Why does she think Hirst acted like this? "With everybody else, you think it's because there's shit in their lives. Damien I honestly think did it because he loves life – for purely hedonistic reasons."

And the chicken bone? That's an entirely different matter, says Hirst. "I went to a Malaysian restaurant and I had chicken, and I got a thigh bone from the chicken and kept it in my pocket and back at the hotel I put it in my foreskin, so I had a bone sticking out of the end of my cock."

Tyrell reminds Hirst, aged 44, that he has missed an important detail: "You were in a bar when you were doing it, and this American woman took offence."

Ah, yes, says Hirst, his memory clearing. "She stormed out in disgust, and next day she sued for $100,000. She claimed she'd been traumatised."

That was the last time he exposed himself in public. "I became aware that, in a room full of people and at $100,000 each, it could become very costly. We settled for 8,000 Irish punts."

How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? "I just got sick of myself." What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? "We were both battered." She was as bad as him? "Yeah. If we hadn't been, I don't think we'd have stayed together."

Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. "He's a bit quieter than the other two, and sometimes I think it's because of that."

We're looking at some white roses on a blue-black background. This is one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition. How important is it to him that the show is well reviewed? "Jay [Jopling] always seems to want to get people to be pleased, but I always say I try to ignore the good press so then I can ignore the bad. If you like the good and try to ignore the bad, you can get fucked up. But you make it for yourself at the end of the day, and that's who you've got to satisfy."

A couple of weeks later, we meet up again at Hirst's London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery – a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol's electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has some 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers, and is explaining why he wasn't cut out to be a curator. "Dealing with the ego of artists is mental." Who's got the biggest ego among his British peers? "Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I've been having for this show."

The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I've rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as "embarrassing", "shockingly bad", "Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole", and Hirst labelled "a jumped-up pretender".

Did the reviews surprise him? "Well, I kind of expected them," he says, "but I suppose secretly you do hope they won't be as crap. The worst thing is, I've had phone calls from people who've treated it as a death – phoning up and asking, 'Are you OK?'" He grins. "A couple of the reviews made me laugh. [Guardian critic] Adrian Searle said, 'I failed at painting, too.' I thought that was a cracking line. He rejected me at St Martins."

Has it dented his confidence? "I've had all the confidence dented for two years in the studio, so I've looked at the work and gone through all the doubts and come out the other side. In a way, it was personal and quite aggressive. What got people's backs up most was that I was doing it in the Wallace, in the context of these great artists. But it's early days for me painting. I don't think I've arrived. I don't think I'm as great as they are. These are the first paintings I'm satisfied with… But the Wallace are well happy. The viewing figures are through the roof, sales in the shop are massive."

Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they'll still sell for huge sums. "Maybe it is… who knows? There's an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me, 'You could sign a dog shit and sell it' and I said, 'Why would I?' And then you think, if you did, it would be art. Manzoni blew up a balloon and called it Artist's Breath and sold it. And people go, 'Are you taking the piss, or is it for real?'"

He says there's nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously, and it's true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst's work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he does want them to be taken seriously. "I didn't think, right, I'm going to make paintings now and I don't give a fuck what they look like because we're going to make loads of money. That's not what they're about. They've got to be good."

Has he learned anything from the reviews? "No. I like what Warhol said: you don't read them, you weigh them." Perhaps he couldn't win, he adds. "It's the hallowed area of painting. The same guys who are saying to me these are shit are the guys who've said you're crap because you can't paint. So you paint and they say you're crap now you're trying to paint."

That's not strictly true. Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. "School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we'd always draw from that."

He talks about the inspiration for Mother And Child Divided. "It was about my mum and sister, who had fallen out at the time. It was a funny take on that."

But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter – reds and greens. He's also introduced a few new motifs: deckchairs, windows, splattered crows.

Does he think this show will get better reviews? "I think it'll be another kicking," he says. "It's only a few weeks later and it's similar stuff, so they're just going to say, 'He won't go away!'"

And, he says, they'll be right. "The paintings are going to get better and better and better, and they're not going to go away. There's no way back for me. I've just got to barrel on through. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you can say there's a whole history of great artists who've been slagged off, so you can just embrace that, can't you?"

Hirst tells me he watched a documentary about Francis Bacon the other night. "I loved the way he talked about the Popes. He said they were failed paintings. I loved that. He said he tried to combine the Eisenstein shot of the nanny screaming with the Velásquez painting, and it was a disaster. He said, 'I don't even know why I tried.' I thought what a great thing to say – his greatest paintings, to talk them down like they're shit. That way, no one can slag 'em off." He pauses. "I should have done that."

But Hirst has never been one for regrets, and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. "Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more."

• No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, by Damien Hirst, is showing at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 until 24 January 2010. Nothing Matters is at the White Cube, London N1 from 25 November-30 January 2010. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 08 2009

My Space: Marc Quinn

The artist opens the doors to the library of his London studio – a room for reading and lunch with his boys

I've worked in and around Old Street for 10 years. It's a fun area because it's quite anonymous, but there are always people around. This studio is two storeys of a new build with flats above. It's a bit like a tardis. You enter through a very small door into a big open space, very minimal, with a few artworks around. I like the work of Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, and southeast Asian art. I don't just want to look at my own stuff all the time.

This is the library, where I can sit and read – an area of contemplation, I suppose. If you look closely you'll see an alphabetical list of art books which I'll look at from time to time, but I get most of my inspiration from magazines or the internet.

At the moment I'm working on a series of sculptures of people who've transformed themselves through plastic surgery – it will be shown next year. A lot of the people I found on the internet, such as Buck Angel who is a transsexual porn star. It's quite magical to actually meet someone you've previously only seen on your computer. The final sculptures will be in bronze, silicon and marble, and up to 3m tall.

As an artist you have to have a creative relationship with your gallery, so Jay Jopling from White Cube sometimes drops in. It's partly a social call. He'll see what's happening and then we'll sit down here and decide what we're going to do with a show. My two sons, Sky, 4, and Lucas, 8, often come around for lunch: that's fun (we live in Primrose Hill, which is only 30 minutes away). It's only dangerous for children in that there are unsuitable images on the wall that I have to remember to take down.★

The Art Fund presents an Artist in Conversation talk with Marc Quinn on 12 November at 7pm at the National Portrait Gallery (

Around the room

Marble chairs and table I made a line of marble furniture called Iceberg with the Carpenter's Workshop Gallery in Mayfair at the end of last year. I made this table and chairs for myself to put in the studio. It's Italian white marble, exactly the same material as I would use for the sculptures.

Toast My preferred snack is Poilâne toast with olive oil, salt and pepper. Poilâne is posh French sourdough bread they sell around the corner in Waitrose for about £2 a loaf, but it's worth it because it's got a bit of body and bite to it – it's not just fluffy bread. I'll have a few slices at lunch and then a few more in the afternoon.

Implant This was a gift from one of the sitters for this new series. They sent me a letter saying they'd really enjoyed it and wondered if I'd like a discarded implant as a little present, which was very touching. I imagine it was removed to put a new one in, so it has already been sitting inside a body for a fair few years.

Framed picture This is a satellite photo of Hiroshima taken about one millisecond after the bomb was dropped. It's like the beginning of the 20th century, in a way. There's this rather amazing abstract sculpture made of smoke, the beginning of the mushroom cloud, and then you see the city in front of it just sort of sitting there, waiting. I bought it from an art dealer in Germany.

Sculpture Jason Schulman became an artist at the age of 40, so he's in this interesting situation of being a youngish artist whose work is quite mature. I can't remember the price I paid for this. It's a handmade Solpadine packet in magnetic suspension which appears to levitate. He just did a show at the Moscow Biennale.

Flower sculpture This is one of mine. It's like a transgenic plant; real flowers cast into bronze then reassembled by me to make an impossible plant. I developed a process to cast the actual flower. It was deemed impossible before I got it to work.

Baby heads I made these two little sculptures of my sons' heads when they were born, four years apart. I did a little clay portrait in the hospital and then made both of them in their own placenta as well (a bit like Self, the frozen cast of my head made with nine pints of my own blood). Those ones are now in the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas and a private collection in New York.

Kate Moss Polaroid I took this the first day she came in to start modelling for the series in bronze I did a few years ago. It's a lovely black and white picture of her. She is very easy to work with and understands that there is a difference between herself and her image, which essentially what the work was about.

Silk fabrics I go to the south of India every Christmas for a holiday and I tend to bring back lots of silks and fabrics for covering sculptures. I've been going for about five years now.

William Blake head This is a plaster cast of the life cast of Blake that's in the National Portrait Gallery (one of the inspirations for my frozen head). It's rather amazing because it's not a death mask, it's a life cast, so it's about energy and life rather than the record of an empty vessel. I think that was quite unusual in his day. At one point they were selling copies, so I bought it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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