12 Days, 7 Countries, 1 Damien Hirst print: an interview with two spot-chasers

By Maria Martens Serrano - Wednesday, December 3, 2014
12 Days, 7 Countries, 1 Damien Hirst print: an interview with two spot-chasers

In 2012, Larry Gagosian’s galleries presented “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011”, an international exhibition featuring over three-hundred pieces from Damien Hirst’s colourful spot series. The opening took place simultaneously on January 12th in all eleven Gagosian galleries (found in London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Athens, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and New York).

12 Days, 7 Countries, 1 Damien Hirst print: an interview with two spot-chasers

I was always a colorist, I’ve always had a phenomenal love of color… I mean, I just move color around on its own. So that’s where the spot paintings came from—to create that structure to do those colors, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of color.  —Damien Hirst

In 2012, Larry Gagosian’s galleries presented The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, an international exhibition featuring over three-hundred pieces from Damien Hirst’s colourful spot series. The opening took place simultaneously on January 12th in all eleven Gagosian galleries (found in London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Athens, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and New York).

Not one to be simply satisfied with a worldwide show, Damien Hirst took it further by presenting art-aficionados with a challenge: those who could collect entrance stamps to his show from all Gagosian locations would be rewarded with a personally signed and dedicated spot print.

Many criticized the challenge for its elitism: who has the money, or the time, to make a worldwide trip just for the sake of a spot print? The New York Times described it as “offering rich people the satisfaction that 99-percenters get upon receiving that 11th frozen yoghurt free”.

Nonetheless, 128 spot-chasers did manage to complete the journey. Months later, they were to collect from their neighborhood Gagosian a print whose worth is estimated to be somewhere in the range of $3,500 to $50,000 (Phillips Auction link and The New York Times quote). 

Two friends who joined the spot-chase, filmmaker Helena Doyle and architect/urban sociologist Eduardo Cassina, decided to turn the challenge on its’ head by, unbelievably, spending less on their journey than the value of the print they received. 

Starting in London and ending in Rome, they kept a blog to document their journey, whilst also filming for a documentary that will be presented in 2015. Artdependence Magazine interviews the pair, almost three years later, to recap on their experiences. 

Artdependence Magazine and Maria Martens Serrano: You completed the spot-chase with a surprisingly low budget. It’s typical of Damien Hirst and his work to incite discussions on the value and valuation of things (well, art). Indeed, the entire trip cost each of you less than the price of the print you received afterwards. How did this affect your approach to the challenge?

Eduardo: In fact, that was how we got excited about the project! When a friend of mine told me about the challenge, I wondered how much the entire trip would cost. I did a quick online search, and I saw that the trip could be done for 1200 pounds for flights. We had friends living in all the cities that had Gagosian Galleries, so accommodation was free.  Immediately afterwards I looked at how much a Damien Hirst print would cost: the cheapest ones were going for three to four thousand pounds.  So my first reaction was: ‘someone has to make this as a business opportunity!’ And with that thinking, we were in fact part of the art-business game… quite literally.

Helena: When Eduardo told me about the Spot Challenge, the ‘investment’ was the main driving force - but I said I would do it if we made a documentary about the whole adventure. We both spent savings and borrowed money to do the challenge. We were on a pretty tight budget. We couldn’t afford to eat anything in Geneva; we just fasted till we were back at the airport! It was interesting because we were taking part in a challenge that could potentially cost hundredths of thousands; the first contestant completed the challenge in a private jet. I think there is a neo-liberal aspect to Hirst’s work, and perhaps through this challenge he was trying to widen the demographic of Hirst owners. This was also evident in the Hirst gift shops that accompanied some of the larger galleries. If you couldn’t afford a print you could still go home with an ‘I Spot DH’ mug or Spot cufflinks!

MMS: The Gagosian Gallery conceived The Complete Spot Paintings as ‘a single exhibition in multiple locations’.  Yet, despite its’ world-wide presence, sales from the show were considered disappointing. Was it a case of over-saturation? 

Helena: We had no idea about the sales, but that’s interesting - maybe the fact that Hirst was giving away a load of prints for free rubbed buyers the wrong way! There was definitely a sense of over saturation for us. Our experiences of the galleries were like our experiences of the airports: they were all the same par a few details. We tried to spend as little time in them as possible. In New York, Eduardo takes on a challenge to see how fast he can get in and out of the gallery!

Eduardo: … Yes, the galleries were definitely dislocated spaces. There was even a uniformity on staff: we wrote about it on our blog, noting the racial geometries of power in place inside the space. We got contacted by a member of Gagosian saying that it was not a Gagosian problem, but an ‘art world’ problem. However, a closer look to the shows that, for example, the three Gagosian galleries in NYC host, you can see that in two years, of 57 artists on show, only four were women, and only one was non-caucasian.

MMS: Any comments on the rule whereby you could only take pictures of Hirst’s work as long as someone stood in the shot?

Helena: You were also only allowed to take one photo per person but this was never enforced. I think it was all about keeping a certain atmosphere. The Gagosian is a commercial gallery, it’s serious business and although it's open to the public, it’s not exactly welcoming. There is a coldness that you feel as soon as you walk in and it doesn’t encourage you to stay, which might be the idea! Having said that, we still took loads of photos, jumped around and made some noise!

Eduardo: I guess it has to do with intellectual property and things like that… but at the same time, I have to admit that Gagosian staff were generally very nice about it, and even offered to take pictures of us.  I remember a particularly friendly guy at the Davies Street gallery.

MMS: In every city, you were accommodated by friends and acquaintances – this probably added a more personal touch to the trip, as well as providing you with a brief immersion into local scenes. According to your blog posts, during your hours in Athens you even got to witness the heavy rioting taking place on the streets at the height of the social-political-economic unrest in 2012. How did it feel to travel the world, experiencing all these unique localities, whilst always returning to the same gallery-franchise, the same repetition of dots?  

Helena: The traveling itself was ridiculous; we spent so much time sitting on planes. We spent more time getting to Hong Kong than we got to spend in Hong Kong and that was very painful! But what I did gain from visiting so many cities in such a close timeframe was that it was easier to see the similarities and differences between them. It made us more aware of the atmosphere or even the feelings of the city. I became especially aware of the smells of the cities. It felt like time travel in a way. Staying with locals is a major benefit, especially when you haven’t got much time. It was a great opportunity for us to see our friends across the planet and it would have been a completely different trip without their hospitality.

Eduardo: We were super lucky event-wise. The start was a bit rocky, as our first flight out of London was cancelled because of the snow.  It was a bit stressful, as all the flights worked as a domino: if we were delayed or missed a flight that meant we would miss the rest! But, back to the question; yes.  When we arrived in New York, it was the first time in decades that a local team won the Super Bowl (which took place that night!). We left L.A. a day before Whitney Houston passed away, a few blocks from where we had been; Athens had the riots, and it was Fashion Week in Paris! We couldn’t have planned/ didn’t plan these events, but they just happened, and gave us certain insights on the cities that we visited. Of course, we could only engage in such a journey due to certain forms of privilege we have: having an international network of friends, European passports that allow us to travel visa-free, the ability to book flights and take 12 days off our regular lives…

MMS: The challenge itself, by demanding highly involved audience participation, seemed almost like a pilgrimage. But what were the spot-chasers actually chasing? And how do you feel about such exercises in artist/public engagement?

Eduardo: It was an interesting experiment for sure. But yes, also a bit of a pilgrimage. There is an open Facebook group where ‘spot-chasers’ meet and regularly post spot –painting related stuff. Very nice people, and mostly, I assume, intrigued by Hirst’s work. But yes, it was a form of pilgrimage for a ‘new’ form of religion, almost like wanting to acquire a totem to establish yourself as part of a specific consumer group…

Helena: I’m not sure the audience participation was ‘highly involved’. The parameters of the challenge were in terms of money and whether you could sit on a plane for long periods of time. If the challenge was to make the audience participation an act of art itself, then it would have been far more interesting and innovative to choose cities that are completely off the beaten track, or have pop-up Gagosians in 11 deserts across the world, or have parameters where you could only travel by land and sea. I don’t think it really worked as an exercise in public/artist engagement because we spent very little time in the gallery; the journey was the most interesting part and perhaps that was the point. It felt more like playing out a marketing strategy, as opposed to having a creative engagement with the artist. It was a pilgrimage but the level of devotion varied between contestants!

MMS: For all your efforts, you had a personally signed and dedicated spot print to look forward to. You were even given the opportunity to request the content of the personal inscription. What were your requests, and did Hirst come through? 

Eduardo: No, all 126 spot-chasers got the same dedication: for (NAME), and a drawing of a shark, a skull and a butterfly. They were nice drawings though – and the print is massive, Hirst was quite nice in that sense. I asked him to write “Eduardo, please sell this print”, because I wanted to bring the market bit of the whole quest to the piece. Helena had a great quote though…

Helena: So, if he had fulfilled his promise, it would have read: “To Helena, I made this myself, Damien Hirst”. Which I really liked because of how juvenile it sounded and the fact that he doesn’t make the prints but rather his assistants do. I always thought it was going to be a marketing suicide to allow people to choose their own dedications. Either they never intended to ever deliver the request but wanted to see what people would write, or they thought people were going to write something other than they did. Either way, they chickened out. But I really like the sketches he did at the bottom because they reveal a ‘realness’ we don’t get to see with the Hirst machine. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s these sketches that have caused the Spot Challenge series to increase in value, because it brings you closer to the artist. 

Eduardo Cassina (Spain, 1986) is an architect and urban sociologist trained in the United Kingdom, Portugal, The Netherlands and China. He has worked as a researcher and exhibition designer for the Guggenheim museums in Venice and New York, as well as for the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi). After working as an urban researcher for Goldsmiths, where he developed new methodologies to visualise the sociological phenomenon of Chinese commercial landscapes in Southern Africa, he moved to Moscow to join the Strelka Institute, where he continued his exploration of representation of urban data in new and innovative ways. In 2014 he co-founded the urban consultancy METASITU. 

Helena Doyle (Ireland, 1985) is a filmmaker and installation artist based in London. She studied at the National Film School in Dublin where she specialized as an experimental director and editor, working with both film and digital formats. Her fascination with the immersive quality of early cinematic inventions inspired her move towards installation art and later to immersive cinema. In 2009 she did a research Masters in Fulldome (Immersive Cinema) at the University of Westminster, in connection with the Bauhaus University. After being chosen to participate in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, her interest in documentary filmmaking was ignited and she is currently editing her first feature.  

Maria Martens Serrano is a Dutch-Salvadoran writer. She studied under a liberal arts program at University College Utrecht, going on to graduate with an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Exploring a broad range of interests, Maria previously worked with a news website and a human rights NGO, before becoming involved with several art fairs in the Netherlands. She now writes on topics of arts and culture. In early 2015 Maria joined the team of Artdependence Magazine as editor and contributor.

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