Verity is 65 feet tall and possesses a porno sexuality. She has the lippy, skittish look of a school girl cute enough and dumb enough to get herself into trouble. She’s got a bun in the oven and a pony tail and in the middle of a hail storm shrieking in off the Atlantic not a stitch to wear. One leg raised a little forwards, as if she is mid Pilates. Gaze at her left side and celebrate the wonder of the female body (think Jennifer Lopez, think a Brazilian beach on a Saturday afternoon). Not a goose bump in sight. Look at her from the right and receive a lesson in anatomy: the skin on Verity’s thigh peeled back to show her fibrous muscle, the fatty deposits around her right breast, her brain inside her skull, the foetus in her womb.
She brandishes a sword high over her head (it points straight up to the heavens), mimicking more conventional statements of celebration or loyalty – Baron Marochetti’s King Richard the Lionheart comes to mind. I guess the whole point is that you’d expect a statue overlooking the harbour mouth of a Devon fishing town to represent a sea farer or a former monarch but Verity is neither – it’s a she and she is half pregnant woman, half cadaver. She celebrates nothing but our animalism, human flesh and bone, our reproductive cycle, the fleeting shelter of the womb and then the jarring cold competition that follows. She is standing on what looks like a pile of books.
She spins no fable, she elicits groans and a curious revulsion in the men and women who creep slowly across the car park for a closer look. She is naked truth. Is this what Hirst is trying to say? That we have gone beyond God and nation and heroes – here is truth. Truth is female and she is simultaneously fecund and reproducing and peeling away. “Welcome to the truth of our short material lives – a fleeting moment; this is your fleeting moment. If you can bear to look at her, can you see what I see … make good use of your time.” Is Hirst trying to say anything at all? Is he just taken by the novelty of erecting an enormous statue staring out to sea. Perhaps he just wants to see what he can get away with.
On the day I visited Verity the front page of the local newspaper reported that a rotten trawler sunk in Ilfracombe harbour had been broken up at low tide and taken away. Ilfracombe has fewer ships these days but she has armed herself with a tall bronze wielding a sword and looking out over the grey turbulent sea towards the Gower Peninsular.
The town council talk about Ilfracombe’s new ‘destination identity’, its ambition is to create a brand for Ilfracombe ambient with ‘Curious Coastal Charm’. As you might expect, local residents have given Verity a mixed response (she has only been around for a few weeks). “It looks like a murder victim on a pathologist’s slab”. “It would be so much nicer if it was a maritime statue, rather than a woman with half her foetus hanging out.” Peter Hitchens thinks her hideous and disturbing. “It looks exactly like something you might have seen in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq” says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian.
But the man who runs the nearby aquarium is delighted. So is the butcher. “Put it this way, this time last year the season had already been over for a month. This year we’re still buzzing and it’s nearly November.” Damien Hirst has a restaurant on the front. It is prettily done and the staff are friendly. ‘We only stock illy coffee’ it says on the door, reassuring pilgrims from the metropolis. Hirst being Hirst, he has not given Verity to the town where he now keeps a substantial summer house. Nothing so Victorian and old fashioned. No, he has lent Verity until 2032, at which point her popularity, and no doubt the value of the base metal and the destination dividend she is responsible for will be calculated by a team of Hirst’s auditors. How will she age, I wonder – will she still be fashionable in 20 years? Or shall she be swapped for something more fitting to the spirit of 2032? I’m not sure anyone cares. He got away with it.