Skull art, from Damien Hirst to the streets of São Paulo

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sat, May 12th, 2012

If you were to drive through the tunnel in the Brazilian megacity of São Paulo that connects Avenida Cidade Jardim to Avenida Europa in 2006 you would have encountered a shocking site: tunnel walls completely covered with human skulls.

They were not made of bone but something just as scary; soot. The man behind them was Alexandre Orion, an ever-innovative Brazilian graffiti artist. By selectively scraping soot, built up from the endless stream of vehicles that drive through the tunnel, Orion dug down to the tunnel wall. This once white barrier, and the black grime above it became Orion’s palette. The result is a clever artistic statement, called Ossario, on the filth of Brazil’s largest city.

“Alexandre Orion patiently scrapes off the blackness of the killer soot spat out by cars onto the whiteness of our freedom and our lives,” reads a statement by a Brazilian sociologist on Orion’s website. “We shall tell our grandchildren that one day, in our time, somebody went around the city proclaiming the beauty of life, so that their time could exist.”

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The mural, which was eventually scrubbed away by Sao Paolo municipal workers, is currently featured in an exhibit called Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design, on display through August 12 at The Museum of Art and Design, in New York City. There is much to wow the visitor in this exhibit. One artist filled old liquor bottles with smoke then painstakingly etched eerie landscapes out of the grime left behind on the glass. Another artist recreated an office, including a desk, a dog and a man in a suit, entirely from dirt. Not surprisingly, the subject matter is often dark. One piece, entitled “Bones/Sand/Ball/Tide”, shows a giant ball of sand being pounded away by the waves—we discover that inside the sand ball are a collection of jawbones from some large marine species. A piece called “Death Duster” also features a skull, this one made from household dust.

“From dead skin cells to the remnants of the births of stars and planets, dust penetrates deep within what it means to be human,” reads a statement by the artist behind Death Duster, a British sculptor named Paul Hazelton who has also worked with mediums such as light bulbs and toast.

The skull is a powerful image, it holds our brains and represents intelligence, but it also represents death, war and great human suffering. And it is often drawn upon by artists. One of the most grandiose examples is a skull that the British superstar artist Damien Hirst cast in platinum then encrusted with 8,601 diamonds—a pear-shaped pink diamond adorns the skull’s forehead. The piece, called “For the Love of God”, went on display in June 2007 in an illuminated glass case in a darkened room on the top floor of the White Cube Gallery, in London. The skull came from a London shop and is thought to be that of an 18th century European. The diamonds came from the regal jewelers, Bentley & Skinner, who supplied jewels to the English royal family during Queen Victoria’s reign. The ancient cranium has a dazzling asking price: £50 million.

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While no single collector is yet to buy For the Love of God, the image has become iconic, appearing in advertisements, political cartoons and numerous magazines. Hirst is not the only British artist to decorate skulls with gems. Stephen Gregory decorates his skulls with malachite, pearl and lapis lazuli. He says Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull was not an influence. Gregory’s skulls are a wee bit more affordable, £25,000.

“As both Gregory and Hirst are totally aware, there is absolutely nothing original about making art about, or even with, human skulls,” reads a 2008 article in the Guardian, penned by their art critic, Jonathan Jones. The article goes on to say how American Indians encrusted skulls with precious stones, and in the 1970s, Andy Warhol famously screen printed a skull in gory black and white, overlaid with bright colors.

“The point is, the skull is such a cliche in art that ‘originality’ scarcely comes into play,” states Jones, who claims that he was one of the first to applaud Hirst’s skull, which initially received scathing reviews from many critics.

“Hirst is saying loads about the modern artist, about art and religion, about the modern western world and yet in the end also making an archaic reminder of mortality,” continues Jones. “It is his perfect, diamond-hard, enduring masterpiece.”

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