Shark in the casino. Damien Hirst x Palms Casino Resort
If you have any interest in (pop) culture and contemporary art, Damien Hirst needs no introduction. He is one of the most expensive living artists in terms of the price of works. Famous, rich, controversial. A celebrity artist known both for his art and for the extravagant parties involving rock stars and supermodels. Who, if not him, could design the interiors of an exclusive hotel in Las Vegas – a city of glamour and gambling?
However, let us start from the beginning.
Contrary to what one might expect, his early days were not all fun and games. Damien Hirst, born in 1965, grew up in Leeds, a workers’ city in Northern England. He was brought up by his single mother after his stepfather left when Damien was a child; he never met his biological father. As a teenager, Hirst – then a rebellious punk – was arrested twice for shoplifting. To this day, despite being a multimillionaire in his fifties, speaks with a strong Yorkshire accent, which is deemed unrefined by most Englishmen, and dresses like a chav.
However, the rebellious working-class rascal dreamt of becoming an artist and consistently (though not without obstacles) pursued that dream. He attended the Leeds College of Art and Design, among others, until finally, after several attempts, he was accepted into the prestigious Goldsmiths College in London. While studying there, he won instant fame as the main organiser of the Freeze exhibition in 1988, which marked the symbolic beginning of the Young British Artists movement – now a permanent part of the history of art regarded as one of the most important artistic phenomena of the late 20th century. Damien Hirst and the rest of the group (including Tracey Emin and Sara Lucas) caught the eye of Charles Saatchi, a businessman, collector and owner of a private gallery, who promoted his new charges with great success. However, before Hirst’s career gained in momentum, during his college studies, he would work at construction sites or … in morgues, which undoubtedly had a major impact on his works.
In his artistic career, Damien Hirst, who supposedly has had rather „macabre” interests ever since he was a child, has taken a particular fancy to juxtaposing the sacred with the profane. His favourite subjects? Death and money; the perennial theme of „to have or to be”. As he himself claims, art has always had an interest in extreme, borderline experiences. The imaginary realm of the world he creates therefore consists of strong vanitas themes: animal bodies (sometimes dismembered) embedded in giant tanks of formaldehyde, dead butterflies turned into colourful collages, ready-mades reproducing the sterile interiors of pharmacies and last but not least what is perhaps his most famous work, the sculpture titled For the Love of God – a platinum casting of a human skull (with real human teeth) studded with thousands of diamonds. The title of the last work was inspired by the artist’s mother, who supposedly shouted: „For the love of God, what are you going to do next?” when looking at his blasphemous creations. This question is something that likely everyone asks themselves even today, whether they love Damien Hirst or hate him.
However, we can be certain that he will come up with many other ways to earn to earn good money. Spiteful critics claim that it is “making money” that is Hirst’s real talent, one that he has made into an art. His business undertakings and cooperation with numerous brands could take long to list: from Vans trainers and Swatch watches to collections of top couturiers, such as Alexander McQueen or Lalique; from a CD cover for Red Hot Chili Peppers to AR smartphone apps; from restaurant chains to one of the most exclusive hotels in the world.
In 2019 – meaning in distant, pre-pandemic times – the Las Vegas-based Palms Casino Resort presented to the world a new two-level suite on the 40th floor of one of the hotel towers. Before its opening, the highest price per night ($75,000) was charged for staying in a suite in The Mark Hotel in New York. The world’s new most expensive suite topped that amount by one third. And since the hotel has set the minimum stay duration of two days, those willing to stay at the suite must pay a trifling sum of $200,000 for this indulgence.
We are talking about the Empathy Suite – a suite which not only features art but which in itself is a work of art, naturally created by Damien Hirst. Visiting the suite is like entering the mind of the artist, who made it into a cross section of nearly all aspects and guiding principles of his creative work. The artist’s whole philosophy is present here in a way that might never have been possible before. Does this mean that Hirst has finally found a medium that matches the scale of his vision – this medium being the huge space above the American Sin City? The surface of more than 800 m2, arranged in cooperation with Bentel & Bentel, a top design studio, houses works which are worth some 10 million dollars in total. These include, for example, a „first aid kit” filled with diamonds, a series of works featuring the artist’s favoured pattern of colourful dots, butterflies, pills and skulls, as well as a giant aquarium with a pair of sharks, referring to the iconic work from 1991, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. All of them form a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art. It embodies the myth of Las Vegas or other cities associated with the American glamour, with Hollywood at the forefront. The recipient of Hirst’s works also becomes a performer playing their part among the exceptionally extensive stage objects. But what is this performance really about?
The walls of the private spa feature the outlines of human skulls. From the terrace, you can see Hirst’s monumental sculpture standing in the courtyard, which depicts a headless demon with a decaying body. Two sharks sitting in a tank of formaldehyde were placed next to the entrance so that they „welcome” the guests entering the room right from the threshold, and at the same time accompany them, for example, when they play pool or table football. The installation is titled Winner/Loser – is it a bitter comment on the gambling face of Las Vegas or should it be understood more broadly? You might think that those who can afford to stay in this suite overnight are already winners in the game of life – but is that really so? The chosen ones who step inside the suite will also find a bar created by Hirst with the use of … medical waste embedded in the transparent worktop. Above it, there is a skeleton of a huge marlin – almost like a quote from Hemingway. However, the presence of Hirst’s works is not limited to the room itself: more sharks can be found in the open bar named Unknown (after the artist’s installation which can be found there) and, of course, in the casino.
At every step, the guests staying in the world’s most expensive suite are de facto confronted with the most primal fears which not even the largest sum of money can abate – primarily the fear of transience, downfall, physical pain, death. The overwhelming hedonism of Sin City is mixed with the message of memento of mori, and the luxurious with the kitsch – as is usually the case in Damien Hirst’s work. In his article on the opening of the suite written for artsy.net, critic Nate Freeman shared the comments that his art-world friends had posted under photos presenting Hirst’s hotel designs on Instagram: „ridiculous”, „the end of our civilisation”, the vomiting emoji. This means that the artist is still capable of shocking and triggering extreme reactions; creating truly extreme art.
Inside and across the vast complex, you can find works by creators such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Takashi Murakami, KAWS and many others. However, the true showpieces of the hotel are the works signed by Hirst. At Palms Casino Resort, the quintessence of Las Vegas meets the quintessence of … Damien Hirst. On the website, the hotel’s Sky Villas are advertised with the slogan „When more than you need is exactly what you want”. It is hard to resist the impression that this could well be both Hirst’s motto and the shortest review of more than three decades of his artistic endeavours.