If you live in Norwich, you can’t have missed the 20 ft sculpture of a human head and torso, installed outside Norwich University of the Arts just across the river from St George’s Green.
The sculpture by Damien Hirst sits completely unapologetically in one of the oldest parts of Norwich, not only dividing the city’s aesthetic, but also the opinion of everyone who walks by it. Until July, it will be your favourite place to eavesdrop as families, friends, art students, businessmen and drunk people all offer their ten pence worth on the huge public artwork. A lot of people have commented that it would look more at home in a science classroom than the pedestrianised brick roads of Norwich, which is true: the sculpture was inspired by an anatomical model belonging to Hirst’s son. And it does look like a massive toy; a plaything in garish flesh and primary colours, drawing the public gaze upwards and teasing us all for comment. Whether you like it or not, it is a sight to behold.
If you don’t live here (and the picture in the header doesn’t give you a clear enough idea), let me describe it to you: the massive figure looks just like a model of the human body that you’d see in school. It appears as though made of pristine, gleaming plastic, although the 6-tonne sculpture - entitled ‘HYMN’ - is actually made of bronze. It stands in grotesque contrast against the dark red brick of the 19th Century St George’s building, which is now home to Norwich University of the Arts.
HYMN coincides perfectly with Damien Hirst’s exhibition of paintings and sculptures at Houghton Hall near King’s Lynn, which forms part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival programme. Two weeks ago, we went to visit.
For a bit of context, let me tell you about Houghton Hall. It was built in the 1720s for the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole. The Hall was lavish, stop-you-in-your-tracks impressive, and represented the wealth, power and taste of its owner. Like the city of Venice - where Palladian architecture originates - this is a place purpose built to be as picture perfect as it is. At the time of its completion Houghton Hall’s excessiveness would have been shocking, forward thinking, and a real invitation for comment.
Fast forward almost 300 years, and until the 15th of July this year, Damien Hirst is exhibiting his work at Houghton. The State Rooms are home to his new Colorspace paintings, and outside you can wander the grounds to find 7 sculptures. This is perhaps the first time that Hirst has shown a significant body of work in a formal country house setting, and it’s something very special indeed.
There isn’t much that we can write that doesn’t give this away; this exhibition is an experience that you really, really shouldn’t miss and there is nothing else like it, certainly not in Norfolk right now. Seeing modern artwork like this - especially minimalism - is completely different to seeing it in an art gallery: the paintings are given context and the focus taken away from their face value; instead you read them more by feeling and your own emotions, a response which is heightened by the fact that you are seeing these paintings in someone else’s real home. Of course, Houghton is gorgeous by its own merit - you’ve not known lavish until you’ve seen a room decked head to toe in a velvety burgundy damask, complete with gold chairs to match.
What’s more, Houghton is reasonable to visit, and geared to be family friendly. Entry is £18 and includes access to the house, exhibitions and massive gardens (which are filled with other artworks alongside Hirst’s such as the serene Skyspace by James Turrell).
Children under 17 go free too!
You can easily spend a whole day there - take a picnic if the weather’s good and sit out on the lawn admiring one of the finest views in West Norfolk. It is an experience out you’ll never forget, just perfect for a warm summers day out.
COMING TO VISIT?
Greater Anglia has Advance fares from £10 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Greater Anglia also serves Colchester, Ipswich and Diss on the Norwich line. Direct trains also run from Cambridge.
East Midlands Trains runs services from Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham. Flights into Norwich served from Edinburgh, Manchester, Exeter, Aberdeen and Amsterdam, and seasonally from Guernsey and Jersey.
To plan a trip to Norwich check out our website www.visitnorwich.co.uk