skull 'n' me
ter brugghen
van Loo
Weenix 1704
Weenix 1650
Weenix 1697
ter Borch
Jan Steen
van Everdingen
skull 'n' me
ter brugghen
skull 'n' me

Steal this for the love of god ...

november 19, 2008.

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About eight years ago, in november 2000, the trio Lee Wenham, Raymond Betson and William Cockram, orchestrated a spectacular attack on the Millennium Dome. Leading a group of local London villains, they used a JCB digger to break through the perimeter fence, punched a hole in the side of the Dome itself, and next attempted to smash their way into a display case containing a collection of diamonds with an estimated worth of no less than £ 350.000.000, using sledgehammers and nail guns. The jewels that they were trying to get their hands on included a 203 carats stone, the Millennium Star, said to be one of the finest diamonds ever discovered. A spokeswoman of De Beer's at the time called it the international diamond market's equivalent of a Van Gogh or the Mona Lisa.

The London Millennium Jewels robbers' unavailing audacity kept crossing my mind when last week I went to have a peek at For the Love of a God, that for some reason I keep erroneously referring to as "the God of Love": a work by YB postart star Damien Hirst, who in pictures I continue to mistake for U2 singstar Bono.
FtLoG is a platinum cast of a human skull covered with 8.601 diamonds. The skull is currently on show in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, home to a great many works by Rembrandt van Rijn and other long dead dutch masters. The (material) value of FtLoG is said to be some £ 15.000.000. Its (art-)market value is disputed, but Hirst claims having sold the work to a "consortium of businessmen" (allegedly including himself, as well as White Cube gallery owner Jay Jopling) for £ 50.000.000.
In cash.
Even though it does not come close to the worth of the Millennium Jewels, this - one way or another - still looks like it would make for a highly stealable object, what do you think? Relatively light, easy to hide, easy to transport and very valuable.

The Rijksmuseum is in the midst of a painful, long and expensive renovation. Its main building has been closed for already many years now, and will surely not open up to the public again before 2013. At this moment only a small part of the museum's collection can be viewed. That's in the building's south wing. With also the modern art museum being quite literally out in the Amsterdam streets while awaiting the just so slackening finish of its premises, the Amsterdam Museumplein is as much of a building excavation as is most of the rest of the dutch capital. Little around the Museumplein would raise less suspicion than the advent of a couple of cranes or diggers.
I suggest you take a crane.
Best way in and best way out will be through the roof.
Best time? Tuesday morning, around 6h30.
(Don't try to be subtle, just break on through to the other side.)

rijks politie

Myself, I went in through the south wing entrance early in the morning of november 6th, past a mobile police post with plate glass windows that probably is part of the 'undisclosed additional security measures' that the museum took for the time it has to take care of FtLoG.
Upon entering the museum one also has to pass by an airplane embarkment type of security and 'luggage' check. These I'd guess are also part of the 'additional measures', and not part of the usual routine. I tried to make a picture of the security passage and guards with my cell phone, but immediately there came a young and angry one running towards me, shouting and shaking his finger that it was "absolutely forbidden!" to take pictures ...

I did not insist.

I went in at a good time. For as a matter of fact there's hardly a thing that I find more disagreeable than museum exhibitions where visitors, for the lack of a system with rails and small Disneyland-like trains, are being driven to shuffle in double or even triple lines from entrance to exit along the art works. I went through such ordeal in parisian museums more than once too often. But that morning there were hardly any visitors yet, so there was no waiting, and there were no lines. ( * ) I followed the signs that said "For the Love of God". These led me up the stairs (Rotterdamse Trap), walked me through room #8 ('Rembrandt and his pupils'), and then through #9 ('The late Rembrandt').
Not yet thirty minutes later I saw more and more people getting in line before being allowed near the God of Love. When I arrived there wasn't anyone waiting, so I just went on and felt my way in. One has to, because it is pitch-dark and one has to pass through a couple of small straight narrow labyrinthine corridors to get into the "shrine", which, apart from the obligatory 'exit' signs, is of a complete and unabridged black. Only 15 visitors are allowed inside at the same time. I actually think that's an awful lot. I was lucky to find myself in there alone.

The skull is placed in a cubic glass show case on a black pedestal standing in the middle of a not so very big room. It is posed a little below the average person's eye-level, so that most of us will be looking somewhat down upon it.
It is well-lit.
Very well.
Many viewers when finally standing skull to skull with Love/God, commented that they find him so much smaller than they had expected. That's surely due to the mass of bigger-than-life-sized images of it that they saw before.
For this I came prepared.

With the exception of Rudi Fuch's somewhat over-pathetic introduction, I think the book is really good, though. Including tons of fine drawings and pictures, The Making of the Diamond Skull brings you a Study of the reflection and refraction of light in diamond taken from a 1919 book on Diamond Design, an explanation of the mineral and carbon structure of diamond, and no less than five technical reports on the skull of which Love/God is a precise replica: a report on the measurement and bioarchaeological analysis of the skull, a report on the estimated age of the skull's teeth, an explanation of the results of radiocarbon dating, a report on a general analysis of the skull and a report on the use of CRANID (a computer program that compared the skull with a database of 2.870 skulls in 66 samples from around the world) to evaluate the likely ancestry of the skull. Here is what all this applied science has to say about it: the first report concludes that this was the skull of a young adult male, probably exposed to stress between the ages of 3-5 years, and possibly again at the age of 8-9 years. Radiocarbon dating dates the skull back to between 1720 and 1810. The estimated age of the skull's teeth is 35 years. Also the general analysis concludes at a young adult, most probably male. On the other hand, it turned out to be impossible to say something with certainty about its ancestry. The skull seemed to be a near perfect 'average', as, interestingly, it blends "all the characters of the variation seen in the modern human species".
Now could an artist ask for more?
Best of all the faits divers I found the one stating where Hirst got the skull: he bought it in Islington, North London, from a taxidermy shop by the name of "Get Stuffed" ...

The thing is blinking like hell. But that is hardly surprising given the thousands of diamonds on a such small surface. There's even diamonds in the nose hole, and also the cavities of the eye sockets have been covered. Like most skulls, also this one seems to be laughing out loud, an impression that here is even the stronger because of the full-minus-one set of well-cleaned - original - teeth that line its wide open mouth. The dark, the spot lights and the diamonds make for a very mockingly laughter.
I feel like I have entered Ali Baba's cave, but I am also well aware that all was set in order for me to feel that way. The large pear-shaped diamond on the skull's forehead, surrounded by a number of smaller pointed stones, is like the jewel in a turban ("For The Modern Prince"). That in turn made me feel like I had chanced upon the set of a pirate movie where any moment now Johnny Depp or maybe even Keith Richards himself would come crashing through the ceiling. (I actually do consider Richards as a most appropriate owner for the Love/God (unlike George Michael), and I really hope that eventually he will realize as much and decide to buy it...)
I slowly walked around the cubic glass case, watching the skull's and my own reflections in the glass from several angles. After a while my eyes began to get used to the dark, and as I looked around, I saw the walls and ceiling covered by a great many faint spots, reflections of the light by the diamonds. And I wished that the skull would start to turn around, slowly, like the cheap disco balls that were hovering over depressingly small & empty dancefloors in the back of 1970's village bars...
It was pretty much automatic that I pointed my cell phone camera, and took a picture. It gave me the scare of a life-time when at that very moment someone suddenly came jumping at me. I had not noticed the guard that had been there all the time, silently standing and watching me watching the Love/God from one of the dark corners. She yelled at me in broken dutch, reproachingly: "Niet foto's, verboden meneer! Nergens foto's niet! Leest U dan niet, dat staat er toch!?" ...
I shrugged my shoulders, but I did obey and put my phone away.

I did save my 'illegal' shot, though.
Here it is.
I like it. It's black and vague. I find it scary.

Hirst skull RM

Now let me stay far from the ongoing heated discussions on whether or not Love/God is 'art'. It is not the first time of course that that question has been raised in relation to some work(s) or other, and it will surely not be the last time. Interesting and intellectually challenging as such debates may be, I do think that in the end they are just as pointless as the ever-recurring questions about whether this or that type of organized sound should be called 'music' or not.
As long as 'art' and 'music' remain major cultural categories, all that is (re)presented in and through the institutions that - whether it is by administrative force, by economic force or by both - are labeled by these categories, will be 'art' and will be 'music'. That simply is a matter of fact, whether one or the other agrees with that fact, or not.
Largely this is because there can be no objective ('value-free'), clear-cut definition, other than that, on the production side, 'art' is what 'artists' do, just as 'music' is that what 'musicians' do. The postmodern age broadened the category of 'art' to a pretty much unlimited number of acts and actions, and it opened up the category of 'music' to pretty much any sound one can imagine. Which by the way does not mean that pretty much anything is art or music. Only that pretty much anything can be so potentially.
As a result, maybe 'yes!' that art's become a fair.
I for one never before have found it to be so much fun ...

Several critics and historians find it difficult to accept that in the end there are no 'uniquely cultural objects', and au fond society and culture appear as being more or less interchangeable. They then cringe at the sight of a 'culture' that is shaped and created by 'money, the media, and popular entertainment'. This is at the heart of, for example, Donald Kuspit's essay The End of Art, on the cover of which there is a picture of a glass ashtray filled with cigarette stubs, a detail of Damien Hirst's Home Sweet Home (1996).
It's difficult not to agree with Kuspit's observations on many of the ongoing mechanisms, but I do not share his fear. Mainly because I am convinced that his conclusion that as a result "contemporary culture must satisfy mass taste" (emphasis is mine) is not correct. There are evermore signs that indicate that art itself is tiring from the enduring mix-up of pop and high culture, and that we actually seem to arrive on the verge of exit from what Kuspit considers our 'postmodern hell', in which commercial status and cultural status are one and the same. (cf.: Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics, Altermodernism, ETC. Monkeybusiness - upcoming)
It's easy enough, as long as one may choose.

Of course For the Love of God is art.

It is also a fine work of handicraft, executed by a whole team of craftsmen from Bond Street Jewelers Bentley & Skinner. And yes that it is extraordinarily extravagant. Which I guess is its main attraction. And no, it is not ´beautiful´. At least I do not think it is.

The Rijksmuseum's new director Wim Pijbes counts on Love/God attracting a new, different, cooler audience for his museal classics, that will continue to suffer from strain by continuing renovations for another five years or so. And maybe taking some inspiration from for example Jan Fabre's recent Louvre show, the museum invited Hirst to make a personal selection from the works of its collection of 17th century art. He selected 16 paintings, that are on show in the room next to the skull's shrine. You saw them all passing along the right side of your window, while you were scrolling down this entry, in the order in which they are exposed (all pictures were taken from the website). Apart from formal criteria and impulsive 'liking' there doesn't seem to be much of a plan to Hirst's selection. But each painting does come with a dedicated poppy comment by the YB (self acclaimed) art punk-star. Thus with respect to the first painting, the Old woman selling eggs, by Hendrick Bloemaerts, Hirst comments that the egg that the woman holds in her hand is like a naked skull. In view of Jacob van Loo's Bacchant he seems reassured that "binge drinking isn't a new phenomenon", and Cornelis Saftleven had "too many magic mushrooms" when painting his Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Or maybe he meant the statesman ... Anyway ...

There was nevertheless at least one note that struck me as surprisingly serious. It comes with an interesting selection of three fine, dark paintings of dead game. Two of them are by Jan Weenix, a third one is from the brushes of his father Jan Baptist.
Here they are again, more or less as Hirst placed them in his selection-room at the Rijksmuseum, on the wall opposite and furthest from the skull's shrine.

Weenix Weenix Weenix

"The three paintings work like a kind of crucifixion triptych," Hirst comments. "They are annoyingly accomplished painters, and underneath the physical skill and beauty of the paint there's always a very dark & cruel view of life [...]
The weak won't inherit the world."


Now here's what I would have liked:

I would have wanted to see that Love/God-skull outside of its fully darkened Ali Baba cave/shrine, and put out there in the light, surrounded by these 16 annotated paintings, with nothing but an additional spotlight from above, put in its glass cube on its pedestal, at, say, three-quarters of the room's length, closest to the wall with the Weenix triptych.

That's the way // uh-huh, uh-huh // I would have liked it.


Before leaving I decided to have a quick look at the Rijksmuseum´s most famous painting, Rembrandt van Rijn´s Night Watch.
You will find it just a short corridor away from the room with Hirst´s selection.
Viewers have to keep a certain distance from Rembrandt´s beroemde schuttersstuk, a distance which is marked by a cord stretched between a couple of low metal poles. Behind these, to the right and a bit in front of the painting, there stands a uniformed guard. That is not so much to prevent anyone from stealing the vast canvas, but rather to keep an eye open for art-vandals that possibly might attack and attempt to damage the piece in some way.
Which happened thrice over the last century.
It was sort of funny, really, to see the short and corpulent guard stand out there in the dimmed light ... it did look to me as if he was a part of the work, as if he had just come stepping out.
Very pomo.
I walked up to him and whispered: ¨Het lijkt wel of U net uit het doek komt stappen, meneer!¨ He looked at me, puzzled. I don´t think he understood what I meant, for he answered that indeed a number of slices, that together made up almost one-fifth of the original surface, were cut off the linen in order to fit it between two doors. That was when in 1715 the painting was moved from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Amsterdam town hall ...

The little fat guard standing there all alone next to that big painting... It would have made for another fine picture, but by then I knew one does not really appreciate photographs being taken in our Rijksmuseum.

I left it there.


[ For the Love of God, a copy of an original human skull cast in 2.156 grams of platinum encrusted with 1.106,18 carats of the finest quality ethically-sourced brilliant-cut diamonds, its forehead mounted with a magnificent internally flawless light fancy pink brilliant-cut pear-shaped diamond weighing 52,4 carats, surrounded by fourteen D flawless white brilliant-cut pear-shaped diamonds weighing a total of 37,81 carats and its jaws set with the teeth extracted from the original skull, will remain stealable from the first floor of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, until the 15th of december, 2008. ]

[ Next related SB-entry: Kings, Queens & Koons | Earlier related SB-entry: Jan Fabre @ the Louvre ]

notes __ ::
(*) That was around 10h. FPCM actually went there even earlier on that same day, around 9h, when the museum just opened. Even less visitors then. He told me workers still were vacuum-cleaning at the time. [ ^ ]

tags: Amsterdam, postmodernism, postart, Rijksmuseum, diamonds

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