British Artist Is a Hit in Moscow

For MTHirst standing by one of his artworks at the Triumph Gallery on Monday.
Damien Hirst, the superstar British artist best known for his pickled displays of large animal corpses, launched his controversial work in Russia's capital on Monday at a private viewing with a difference.

"Everything was sold before the show opened," said Dmitry Khankin, co-owner of the Triumph Gallery where the showing was held. "One man bought everything."

A Russian oligarch perhaps?

"We call him a mini-garch because his annual income is only $50 million," Khankin joked.

Judging by black, chauffeur-driven Mercedes S-Class saloons, Porsche off-roaders and Cadillacs lining the street outside the elegant 19th-century building in central Moscow, visitors might have imagined the private viewing, to which 500 expensively dressed Moscow socialites were invited, was a VIP event.

"This is the VIP evening but there was actually a VVIP event last night for a small group who don't like a lot of publicity," Khankin said.

The sellout success of Hirst's debut Moscow show was all the more remarkable because the works on sale -- part of a series entitled New Religion which was first shown in London last October -- are all limited-edition prints and artifacts of up to 155 copies per work, rather than one-offs.

Hirst has said the show attempts to portray how science has become the world's new religion. It uses photographs of individual medicine pills and plastic bottles of drugs with Biblical themes underneath them, such as "The Birth of Jesus" or "The Good Samaritan."

As designer-label-clad women in high heels and miniskirts wobbled past, clutching themed drinks and snacks -- Bloody Mary cocktails in test tubes and plastic medical syringes containing panacotta and chocolate mousse -- Russia's high art establishment tried to be polite about the event.

"It's positive that Damian Hirst is finally showing in Moscow," said Zelfira Tregulova, the deputy director of the Kremlin Museum.

"A lot of people are interested in him. But this gallery is a very high-society place, and I find it, shall we say, strange that the exhibition is showing for only one day."

The show's dramatic symbolism, including a work entitled "The Wounds of Christ" using close-up photographs of a gunshot victim on a ventilator with Photoshop additions of bleeding wounds to his feet and hands, did not upset wealthy Muscovites.

"Moscow is a very cosmopolitan city, and Hirst is a fashionable figure," said Dasha Chichkina, the gallery's press officer. Flicking her long blonde hair from side to side and blowing kisses at passers-by, she grinned: "His arrival here is an event."

Hirst put it a different way. In an interview in the front of the official exhibition catalog, he explained: "I'm operating at the top end of the art world. So I can come in and you're not going to think: 'It's a [expletive] birthday card.' So I can take a birthday card and re-represent it to you, and you're gonna go: '[Expletive] hell, that's gotta be important if it's been put here.'"

Hirst, dressed in a jacket with a skull on the back, arrived at the gallery and held court in the bar, which was decorated with medical drips containing mock blood in each corner. He chatted with guests and signed their invitations to the show.

As one gallery owner put it: "Hirst is big, brash and expensive. He is bound to succeed in Russia."