Damien Hirst Designed the World’s Most Expensive Hotel Suite—and It Might Be His Masterpiece
On Friday night, I saw
It’s called the Empathy Suite, and it costs $200,000 for a weekend. I was there for a two-hour shindig celebrating the Gesamtkunstwerk-cum-suite’s opening, where Hirst wove his way through surgically augmented bodies in glittering outfits. Men and women hoovered caviar from truck tire–sized tins and drank flute after flute of Dom Pérignon. Cigarettes were snuck in corners. In the opening hour of the party, one guest claimed to have snorted cocaine in every bathroom (there are three bathrooms).
The attendees were all taking pictures. The Hirst artworks, a greatest-hits tour of his iconography, would later appear in the backgrounds of blurry selfies. Taken together, the works are worth around $10 million. They include a pill cabinet work filled with diamonds, a medicine cabinet work, a series of butterfly works, and a large piece featuring a pair of sharks. The two dead ocean predators in formaldehyde are near the door, poised to greet guests who drop the cost of an Ivy League education on a weekend in Sin City.
The Empathy Suite is not just full of Hirst works—it is a Hirst work. Visiting the suite is akin to stepping inside Hirst’s brain, or at least Hirst’s id. All of his trademark motifs are represented: the drug paraphernalia encased under the bar; the colorful dots running up the columns framing the outdoor jacuzzi; the pills streaming down the hallway wallpaper; the spin painting on the pool table. There are Hirst butterflies in the massage room—and most other rooms; there’s a Hirst skull carved into the wall of the salt spa. Above the bar, a two-part hanging sculpture—one of the six works, some of which are in multiple parts, made specifically for the suite—features a taxidermy marlin and a marlin skeleton. In a nod to Vegas excess, the piece is titled Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time (2018).
The suite, which Hirst designed with architecture firm Bentel & Bentel, is completely over-the-top, very on-the-nose, and, to some, garish. One prominent art-world figure responded to my Instagram story—I had posted a picture of the jacuzzi’s dot-covered columns overlooking the Las Vegas night—with a number of emoji, including the face vomiting green bile, the monkey covering its face, and the purple eggplant. Another observed, “It looks ridiculous.” A third bemoaned, “Truly the end of civilization as we know it.”
But if you give into it, luxuriate in the Las Vegas–ness of it, there’s no more fear, there’s no more loathing, and the whole spectacle becomes kind of transcendent. The entire ethos of the artist—life and death, art and money, excess and restraint, luck and skill—is present in a way that was never before possible. Maybe Hirst has finally found a medium that measures up to his vision, and it’s a sky suite in the city that holds a dark funhouse mirror up to the American dream.
Before getting into how exactly Hirst came to invest a suite at the Palms with his inimitable aesthetic, let’s pull back. Sin City does not have a contemporary art museum—the Nevada Museum of Art is developing an outpost there, to be run by the curator Heather Harmon—but it is chock full of contemporary art. Many hotspots in the nation’s oasis of excess in the middle of the desert feature works of fine art to offset the relentless, cacophonous commerce of the casino floor. The Aria has a gigantic site-specific installation by
Call it horrific, call it gaudy, call it selling out, but it is quintessentially Hirst, and quintessentially Vegas.
But there’s a different kind of art-meets-gambling provocation going on at the Palms, which is owned by art-collecting brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta—Vegas-born casino tycoons who, over the course of 2016 and 2017, sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) network to Ari Emanuel’s Endeavor for a reported $4 billion. In 2016, they announced plans to buy the Palms, then set about a $690 million renovation, deciding to turn their off-Strip property into a place where the art is neither decorative, nor simply a gimmick, but actually integral to the hotel.
The Fertittas met Hirst because the artist is—and this is extremely on-brand for him—an avowed UFC fan. Naturally, he got to know the owners. (One source said that the opening of the suite was timed around a trip Hirst had already planned to Vegas, to attend the Jon Jones–Anthony Smith fight Saturday at the UFC Octagon in the T-Mobile Arena, which Jones won.) In September 2016, the Fertitta brothers—Hirst collectors for over a decade at that point—asked the artist if he had any works they could buy for the hotel. Hirst offered them a prize catch: The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded) (1999), a shark-in-formaldehyde sculpture from the same “Natural History” series that began with his unassailable masterpiece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).
That work became the centerpiece of Unknown, a bar designed completely by Hirst and dropped in the middle of the gambling floor. Atop the marble bar, the great fanged beast of the sea is chopped into three parts suspended in matching glass cases, its macheted carcass looming as tourists get hosed at the craps tables and soused at the bar. It’s surrounded by a series of Hirst’s dot paintings installed on the outer walls. The bar’s coasters are Hirst dots, its swizzle sticks feature Hirst dots, and the matchbooks are covered in Hirst dots.
What intrigues me is that the Fertitta brothers took a work by an artist who, to the public, so embodies the vagaries and vulgarities of the art market—for many, Hirst is the poster boy for a world where a dead shark presented as art sells for millions—and put it in a casino, where fortunes are made and lost at a lucky flop or a bad dice roll.
When asked about the decision to go with Hirst to anchor the collection in the hotel, Jon Gray, the Palms’s general manager, said, “Our process always starts with the guest experience first, and we did a lot of research into who our future guest would be.” He added: “We knew that art was becoming more and more important to people, and particularly our core guest.” (The Fertitta brothers were not available for interviews.)
Critics have often described Hirst’s role in the buying and selling of his work as a kind of Faustian bargain. The apex of this may have been “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” his 2008 sale of brand-new works at Sotheby’s, which grossed $200.7 million at the onset of the global recession. Another high point in Hirst’s canny commercialism was the marketing of For the Love of God (2007), the diamond-covered skull that cost $23.6 million to create, which he then sold for $100 million. Hari Kunzru, the acclaimed English novelist and writer, put it best in an article written in the leadup to Tate Modern’s Hirst retrospective in 2012, saying: “This isn’t just art that exists in the market, or is ‘about’ the market. This is art that is the market—a series of gestures that are made wholly or primarily to capture and embody financial value, and only secondarily have any other function or virtue.”
And The Unknown is exactly that: Hirst’s stuffed animals in formaldehyde epitomize the art market, at least in the eyes of the general public, which gets outraged that billionaires are paying fortunes for carcasses floating in glass boxes. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was intended as a provocation, and when Charles Saatchi bought it for £50,000, the British tabloids declared: “£50,000 for Fish Without Chips.” But £50,000 was plankton; in 2004, the sculpture was sold to billionaire hedge fund king Steven A. Cohen for a fortune, inspiring the title for Don Thompson’s definitive book on the art market in the 21st century, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.
A few hours before the party in Hirst’s Palms penthouse, I was getting shown around the hotel by its creative director, Tal Cooperman. Upstairs at the bar of a restaurant called Vetri Cucina, there’s a large work from the “Veil Paintings” series, which Hirst debuted at Gagosian in Los Angeles last year. (The series is notable because Hirst actually made the paintings himself.) The upscale brasserie Scotch 80 Prime is said to be named for the roughly $80 million worth of art adorning its walls. While most of the work at the Palms is owned by the hotel, the Fertitta brothers own most of the works in Scotch 80, which are on loan. A record-breaking Basquiat skull painting, dropping out only when Maezawa lobbed the winning bid of $98 million, or $110.5 million with fees.) And of course, there are more Hirsts, including a very large canvas called Believer (2008), with thousands of butterflies encased under household gloss in geometric patterns.
The hotel’s biggest recent acquisition is also a Hirst: Demon With Bowl (2014), the centerpiece of “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” the artist’s show at the two palazzos owned by François Pinault that opened a month before the 2017 Venice Biennale—and then ended up upstaging the Biennale. Critics trashed the show, and curators blasted it over martinis at the Gritti Palace, but regardless, the work was selling. By the time the Biennale opened in May, Demon With Bowl had already sold—the Fertittas acquired it during the opening in April 2017, but managed to keep the deal hush-hush until January of this year. (The Fertitta brothers did not say how much the purchase price was, but editions of the colossus were priced at $14 million during the Biennale.)
Demon With Bowl is currently being installed at the Palms, towering 60 feet toward the heavens. For many hotels, this would be the coup de grâce, the crown jewel of a collection. For the Palms, it may simply have been purchased so there would be a Hirst statue big enough to be seen from the Hirst museum in the sky.
I got a sneak preview of the 9,000-square-foot Empathy Suite the day before the party, and when I walked in, the concentrated hit of uncut Hirst immediately coursed through my veins. The synergy between the works and their environment reminded me of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. While the Rothko Chapel overwhelms visitors by presenting a stark minimalist vessel for works that so clearly evoke unbearable depression, which would lead to his suicide while the space was still being completed, the Empathy Suite is an enclave for the mega-wealthy that serves as a jewel box for expensive artworks about money. Both spaces achieve peak thematic synergy between singular artworks and their unique environments.
But it was the party on Friday that really activated the immersive Hirstian experience, when revelers indulged in drink and (alleged) drug use next to formaldehyde sharks as if they, too, would remain suspended in an exquisite state forever. Hirst is now sober, but was once known for his out-all-night antics. In a 1999 profile in The New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins recalled how Hirst arrived at a lunch looking “pretty wasted” after being out all night at Soho bars, and proceeded to “order, spill, and consume various alcoholic beverages,” becoming “progressively more alert and articulate.” Hirst told The Guardian in 2000 that he would sometimes black out from consuming large quantities of alcohol and cocaine; later in the story, it was revealed that the artist was “facing legal action after he dropped his trousers in the restaurant of a Dublin hotel last month and inserted a chicken bone in the end of his penis.”
Hirst’s pill works and medicine cabinets were always about the extremes of drug addiction and sobriety. Is making these drug-themed works for a commission to trick out a Vegas hotel suite a commentary on the excess of Vegas, or an all-out embrace of it? This is a city where EDM wub-wub-wub noises throb through walls at all hours; where revelers pop molly like Tic Tacs while losing themselves to famous DJs. Does the irony of blanketing a penthouse sin den with prescription pill wallpaper even translate, or simply come off as earnest? Does the work’s tongue-in-cheek commentary about the market become moot if you have to pay $200,000 just to see it? Or maybe Hirst isn’t posturing anymore; perhaps he’s entered a period of his career where, now sober, he’s earnestly and single-mindedly pursuing one final vice: making money.
Whatever the artist’s intent, the Empathy Suite is the perfect Hirst for Sin City. It presents contemporary art in a uniquely Vegas way: not by putting it on a pedestal, but by turning it into a pricey hotel room for wealthy tourists who are reckless with their money—the city’s ideal clientele. Call it horrific, call it gaudy, call it selling out, but it is quintessentially Hirst, and quintessentially Vegas.
As for Hirst himself, I lost him in the crowd of artists, casino owners, local celebrities, and Vegas restaurant kingpins—including, of all people, Gordon Ramsay—so I didn’t get a chance to ask him about the work. In a statement, he said of the Fertitta brothers: “They have allowed me to create a suite in the hotel and design everything and completely fill it with my art.” But as I was leaving, I got a more satisfying answer from looking at the sharks near the front door. There they were, suspended in formaldehyde forever, dead but looking dangerous and alive, as if they had somewhere to go.
Nate Freeman is Artsy’s Senior Reporter.