Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The infamous English artist collages blades, pins, and needles to render aerial images of cities around the world.
Have you seen Edward Scissorhands recently? The film is a sheer delight. Not just for the dreamy teenage mall-goth chemistry between Winona Ryder (who was only just coming into her own back in 1990) and her then-boyfriend Johnny Depp (why did they ever break up?), but for the inspired comic backdrop of the film. The quiet star of Edward Scissorhands is its suburban setting: the manicured lawns, topiary fences, and colorful four-square homes that serve as the stage for director Tim Burton's chirpy morality play. (Maybe you've never seen it? Good news, then: For some reason, Edward Scissorhands is playing again in select theaters nationwide right now.)
Damien Hirst is the art world's Tim Burton. Both of them got their starts in the late 1980s, did their best work in the early 1990s, and forever changed the mediums in which they worked—but have since failed to turn the page. Or maybe Hirst is the art world's Johnny Depp, a phenomenal and gothic talent lost to commercial dreck in recent years. (Several Hirst paintings were nicked by thieves last December, so that might rule him out as the fine-arts Winona.)
Hirst's latest work—on view at White Cube São Paulo—could easily be mistaken for the artist's spin on Edward Scissorhands. "Black Scalpel Cityscapes" features urban maps of cities such as Paris and Moscow, rendered in surgical instruments and other ephemera: skin-graft blades, stainless-steel studs, and stitching needles included.
These works are a sequel to a series of "scalpel paintings" that Hirst first created a couple of years ago. "I was flying over Milton Keynes in a helicopter and I looked down and I thought, Well what the hell is that, it's such a modern landscape," Hirst says in a videorecorded interview. His eye, he says, was drawn to the modern grid and layout of the city. "I probably should've lied and said it was Baghdad," he adds.
(In that video interview, Hirst and his interlocutor, White Cube exhibitions director Tim Marlow, draw a comparison between Hirst's 1990s vivisections and the recent beheadings by ISIS. Turn the video off before you get to that point. It's bound to be more offensive than anything Hirst is doing.)
The pieces are, from a distance, easy enough to read: Cities are dark and fragmented places, organized by the violence they do to the people who inhabit them. The paintings are also consistent with Hirst's penchant for working exhaustively off of a single theme. Blades and grids follow from some of his earliest works involving vivisected animals displayed in vitrines.
"You try to say something and deny you're saying something at the same time," Hirst says, noting that he used silver French condoms and tourist tchotchkes for his scalpel painting of Paris as well as silver religious tokens for his piece on Vatican City.
Hirst has come back to the themes of institutional, mechanical violence again and again in his career. Still, there's something to be said for a vision of city maps that is reductive, focused exclusively on the accidents of urban composition rather than the information maps are designed to convey. Vibrant plans are made quite dead. Here Hirst is mapping his own psychic drama over every capital on the planet. Better this way than flooding galleries in all those cities with dots.