Art Around the World

What the Sensationalists Did Next

By Tom Gross, June 13, 2000

“Sensation 2,” which is officially called Ant Noises (an anagram of sensation) has opened at London’s Saatchi Gallery, and is already causing as much controversy as last year’s original Sensation show did in London and New York.

At the heart of the commotion is Damien Hirst, whose towering 20-foot sculpture of a torso, Hymn, bought by leading art collector Charles Saatchi for $1.5m, turns out to be an exact copy, albeit enlarged, of a cheap $20 plastic supermarket toy. The designer of the toy, Norman Emms, from the small town of Hertford in southern England, received just $3000 from the toy company that commissioned the model. On hearing the news, a furious Mr. Emms said: “This is a blatant rip-off. Fine art can get away with murder.”

Backing up Mr. Emms’s claim, a bronze foundry in England confirmed that it was handed the plastic toy by Hirst last fall, with instructions to scale it up and cast it.

In response to a wave of criticism, Hirst admitted that he is often “inspired” by “what I see around me” and agreed to make a “goodwill payment” to Mr. Emms, after the toy-maker launched a legal action against him. Mr. Saatchi, who was apparently unaware of the artistic inspiration behind his recent purchase, has offered to make amends by having Mr. Emms’ toy models sold at the shop at his London gallery.

In spite of the fuss, some art critics are lauding Hymn as an “absolute masterpiece” (Daily Telegraph) exploring the “frailty of the human condition,” and “among the most forceful British sculptures of the last 100 years” (The Times of London). They also point out that Rodin and plenty of other sculptors did not actually carve their own work, and that Hirst is following in a noble tradition.

Other critics aren’t so sure. David Lee, editor of Art Review said: “How is it possible that simply copying a toy and making it bigger, without any original design work, turns it into a work of art?”

Another critic suggested Noises be called by another anagram of sensation “not sane.”

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.