Why's a Haida carver doing a burial totem for a controversial British artist? Because Damien Hirst asked him to
Alaska-born, Haida-raised, White Rock-based Robert Davidson was one of the late Bill Reid’s apprentices. He and his brother, Reg, are among B.C.’s best-known living carvers. So when bad boy British artist Damien Hirst went looking for Northwest Coast totems to adorn his Mexican villa, he naturally arrived at the Davidsons’ door. Hirst, the death-obsessed former mortuary worker famous for totemic works of his own (sharks, sheep, and cows preserved in formaldehyde-filled tanks), originally commissioned six poles from six carvers, including 10 house posts from Reg—only to scrap the villa and ask that the poles be sent instead to his castle in Gloucester, England. Robert, who’d been asked for a 30-foot burial pole, shipped his in the fall. Using a 1:12-scale maquette, Davidson pointed out how burial poles require an inverted tree—base of the trunk at the top of the pole, top of the tree in the ground. At the back is a hollowed-out area for the deceased. “Originally the burial pole would be commissioned by the chief,” said Davidson. “This would be his final hurrah. The crests on the pole would likely be his crests.” How did Davidson decide which crests would represent Britain’s richest artist (who recently sold a diamond-encrusted human skull for $100 million)? “I chose Thunderbird and Killer Whale. Both are supernatural beings. Killer Whale is the chief of the underworld, and Thunderbird is one of the supreme beings of the air. Killer Whale is traditional food of Thunderbird. Both creatures belong to the Raven clan of the Haida. So maybe on a subconscious level he could be a Raven. A Raven is a trickster, and Damien certainly plays with the conscious and subconscious.” Where in Hirst’s castle will the pole be planted? The carver shrugs. “I’m not sure it’s even arrived yet—there has been no communication. But if there is a ceremony, I would like to be part of it. Or to witness it.” A reasonable expectation. But unlike public commissions, where all are welcome, this is a private affair. Given Hirst’s recent withdrawal from the public world, his newfound seclusion, who will see these poles? And who among them will know what they stand for?