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Responses to “Anatomy of an Angel”, II: Prose

October 31, 2011

As the title suggests, this is a follow-up / companion piece / exploratory essay accompanying the poem I posted yesterday, ‘Responses to “Anatomy of an Angel”, I: Poetry’.

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Image from Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images, via the Independent.

Damien Hirst's "Anatomy of an Angel", a white marble sculpture of an angel with some of its surface cut away to show internal organs.

On Thursday, I went into Leeds to meet a friend who I hadn’t seen for just about a year, to catch up, make further plans, and – most crucially – append my illegible scrawl to two copies of a deed poll officially certifying that {Common Very Gendered Name} is now {Possibly Unique and Much Less Gendered Name}. We had lunch in the Tiled Hall café, and then wandered over into the art gallery. First, we looked into the temporary Damien Hirst exhibition (today is its last day), which has attracted some comment because, well, Damien Hirst.  The preserved sheep in its glass box was, perhaps ironically, the least interesting piece there, I thought; I was much more interested by the lightboxed, zoomed-in photos of what P assures me was aspirin (pills have so much detail close up) and by the enormous cabinet piece entitled “Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology”, consisting of various anatomy models – you know, plastic cross-sections of various bits – carefully arranged and painted.

The one that made me stop and stare the longest, however, was “Anatomy of an Angel”, the sculpture pictured at the top of this post. Done in gorgeous white Carrara marble, it’s an angel sculpted in a style reminiscent of a Renaissance Venus, all soft curves and sidelong gaze; but here and there the ‘skin’ is taken off, like an all-white version of one of the garishly coloured plastic models, to show carefully detailed muscle and bone underneath. It’s unearthly and uncanny and rather disconcerting and took my breath away. P commented that it looked like a zombie version of one of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who; my first thought was how alien it was to see a traditionally-styled angel represented as, well, having insides. The physicality of angels – did they eat? did they have sexes? (how) did they reproduce? – was a matter of much concern to medieval theologians, and for all I know there are still serious men with beards arguing about it somewhere, but in popular discourse the insubstantial/otherworldly idea of the angel seems to have won out.*

Given that this is a sculpture which creates its effect by making visible what is usually hidden, by exposing to view an interior which I, at least, hadn’t ever really considered might exist, this seems as good a place as any to bring up the maybe-relevant point that making sculpture is a collaborative process. For “Anatomy of an Angel”,

Although his studio prefers not to discuss the matter, it’s no secret that Damien Hirst never visited Studio Sem; he sent a resin model […] and approved the marble through photographs.

The article from which that quote is taken, a 2009 Financial Times piece by Rachel Spence on the marble workshops in Pietrasanta (which I unfortunately can’t find the original web-home of, assuming it had one) gives examples showing that Hirst isn’t particularly out of the ordinary here. Many artists have the idea and then pass it on to a specialist to realise – which is, in itself, no different than, say, a theatre director who envisions a production and then delegates much of the practicality to the stage manager, choreographer, costume designer and composer. A theatre company, though, is a company: even if we talk about Gregory Doran’s Hamlet or Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado there is still a general acknowledgement that a lot of other people were involved. Similarly, agents, editors and research assistants are understood to be part of how novels happen, even if only one name goes on the cover: they are talked about in interviews, thanked in acknowledgements, joked about when an author publishes something over-long or over-indulgent. But there’s usually no such visibility for the backstage crew, as it were, who assist in getting other artistic media from idea to reality – an absence which both perpetuates and is perpetuated by the image of the artist as lone, brilliant genius.

I think the image of the lone genius is one of the thousand faces of the fantasy of self-determination: people like the idea that they could do great things and realise their dreams entirely unassisted. While this is an especially popular narrative in the current political climate – because pretending that you got where you were totally on your own helps insulate you from the idea that there but for the grace of God go I – I suspect it’s always been around, as admitting to yourself that you need help, of any kind, is a realisation that will never not bruise your pride. And pride is timeless.

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* Although of course there are subversions, including, of all things, a recent Lynx advert: the “[wear Lynx and] Even angels will fall” tagline is precisely as tiresome as you would expect, but the portrayal of an angel trying to navigate an average house and getting her halo caught on lights, wings trapped in doors, and so on is genuinely funny. It’s an unusual look at the problems a creature actually built with the accoutrements given to the traditional angel would have to deal with.

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