Off-season at Château La Coste, a few miles north of Aix-en-Provence, and the rows of vines are bare tendrils, entwined. Between them, a few solitary visitors in hats and scarves are on a walking tour of the 44 architectural curiosities hidden in the 600-acre grounds – from Frank Gehry’s pick-up-sticks-esque pavilion to Andy Goldsworthy’s underground woven-tree cave, past Bob Dylan’s ironwork freight car, and down to Sean Scully’s giant geometric Corten steel framework. Dotted around are a number of cranes, construction machinery and workmen.

A golf buggy pulls up to the whitewashed curvilinear Oscar Niemeyer pavilion, and in swaggers the artist Damien Hirst. Beside him is La Coste’s owner and visionary, Belfast-born property investor and hotelier Paddy McKillen, a quietly formidable presence. He’s less comfortable with the circus of people who are here to photograph the two men in advance of Hirst’s new show, The Light That Shines, set to open here on 2 March. It will be the British provocateur’s first show at the vineyard, and also the first time a single artist will take over all five of the exhibition spaces. Classics such as Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde will gather in Renzo Piano’s glass-box pavilion, while new works include The Secret Garden paintings shown by Gagosian at Frieze London last October, and a flutter of red Empress paintings in the orange cantilevered Richard Rogers Gallery.

Hirst with The Collector with Friend, 2015
Hirst with The Collector with Friend, 2015 © Claire Gaby/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024

The two men face each other amid pieces from Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, the elaborate multimillion-pound fiction first shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale as a provocative comment on myth, truth, storytelling and curatorship. McKillen’s unease is swept away by Hirst’s bouncy improv style – one minute he sticks his head between the legs of a sculpture, the next he’s biting the wings of the Golden Pegasus, then holding McKillen’s hand in a reflection of the nearby sculpture of Mickey Mouse: “Collector and friend.” Eventually, McKillen’s smile is genuine. 

Over coffee at the vineyard’s five-star hotel (the finishing touches are being applied to the new, more accessible, on-site accommodations), McKillen says, “There’s no one else, I don’t think, on the planet who can do [a show like] this across the pavilions – because of the painting, sculpture, drawings, ceramics and bronzes.” Such a project is, he says, a long-held dream since he bought the vineyard in 2002 and began commissioning architectural pieces. “La Coste was really designed for Damien’s work, because it’s so diverse.”

The pair on Hirst’s Temple, 2008
The pair on Hirst’s Temple, 2008 © Claire Gaby/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024

The two met in 2008, “through buddies”, says McKillen, among them Bono, at Sotheby’s philanthropic Red auction co-curated by the U2 frontman and Hirst. The artist had visited Château La Coste before, when staying with friends, but admits thinking: “This guy’ll be lucky to get this off the ground in this area… it’s such a big thing he’s taking on.”

Hirst’s perspective changed with time. “I kept coming here and hanging out; with my dogs, with my girlfriend, and my kids. Paddy’s into organised neglect, which I like. He says, ‘This is happening and that’s happening, and if you want to come, come; and if you don’t, don’t.’” 

Charity, 2002, by Damien Hirst
Charity, 2002, by Damien Hirst © Claire Gaby/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024

Hirst likens McKillen to Gaudí in what he’s doing. “Every time you come, there’s a new architecture pavilion, a new thing, and this and that.” In 2022, McKillen was awarded L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for his contribution to the country’s culture.

“I hate that word – collection,” says McKillen when asked how he describes La Coste’s array of art and architecture. He simply “asked our best friends to design amazing spaces. And, at first, they didn’t really want to. And by coaxing and humour and friendship and love and meals…” He shrugs. “It’s amazing.”

Is it a folly? “That’s it!” He smiles. “You can’t dig [the pavilions] out. That’s not a financial model. It’s like madness. The whole of La Coste is one big folly.” 

The pair in front of (from front) Grecian Nude, 2013, The Collector with Friend, 2015, and Medusa on Seabed, 2017
The pair in front of (from front) Grecian Nude, 2013, The Collector with Friend, 2015, and Medusa on Seabed, 2017 © Claire Gaby/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024 (3)

The motivation? “I want everyone to come. For one reason – freedom. They can walk inside, they can touch. They can make it their own. Sit inside [the spaces] and have a [moment] of meditation. It’s a freedom, it’s a process.”

Which explains why, in a funny way, Hirst’s exhibition is but a prelude to the main event. Fifteen years ago the friends began “chipping at each other over lunch and dinner”, says McKillen, about creating a building on the property. “I didn’t want to have a plonked sculpture,” he emphasises. “Everything here has to have the architect or the artist’s heart and soul.”

The idea evolved to become a chapel – a 100ft bronze hand rising from the ground to point skyward. McKillen shows pictures taken on his phone of himself and Hirst at the Cotswolds foundry where it is being created – two tiny embracing figures dwarfed by the giant bronze palm they are standing on. “I designed this arm as a sculpture,” says Hirst. “It was based on a hand holding a mobile phone. But it was a bit like Christ’s fingers. And then I thought, it’s like a spire. It was Paddy’s idea to put steps inside it so you could go up it.” 

The Unbelievable, 2016, by Damien Hirst
The Unbelievable, 2016, by Damien Hirst © Claire Gaby/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024

When asked if the space will be consecrated, they look at one another for thoughts. Yes, says McKillen: “You know, my parents were religious. I’m not incredibly, but I just think it creates a spirit here.” Ideally, chips in Hirst, it’d be non-denominational, and speak to as many religions as possible.  

At any rate, it will heighten “that magical, zen, spiritual feeling coming in here”, says McKillen. “I literally forget about all problems here.” He’s had a fair few, taking on first the Barclay Brothers and then the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and the businessman and former prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani over ownership of – and then complex exit payouts from – the Maybourne group of hotels (including Claridge’s and The Berkeley).

Charity, 2002, by Damien Hirst
Charity, 2002, by Damien Hirst © Claire Gaby/Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2024

Here, in the “protected hollow” of La Coste, there’s a delicate relationship between artists/architects and McKillen. Buildings are “my business”, McKillen says, in typical understatement, given that recent hotel builds have included the 69-room Maybourne Riviera, which hangs on the side of a cliff overlooking the Côte d’Azur, and the subterranean five-floor extension of Claridge’s, for which he enlisted Irish miners when traditional builders balked at the job. “There’s not one screw decided without me being involved. That’s why it takes years and years,” he says. “Sometimes the idea doesn’t appeal to me… it’s very sensitive. But [the artists] sort of get it, you know.” Hirst’s chapel is pencilled to open in late 2025. 

“Paddy’s very hands-off,” counters Hirst. “And lets the artist do what they want.” When he does get involved it’s to the point, and impactful. “He will come in with a [suggestion] that will just improve everything.” Hirst references a recent example when McKillen – quite rightly, says Hirst – said he thought the internal staircase of the chapel looked like a fire escape. Hirst changed it. “Great, kiddo. Much better,” said McKillen (And how many people can get away with calling Hirst “kiddo”? “One,” he replies.)

As the exhibition is discussed, McKillen’s eyes dance. There are some things he knows (“I sent you options for 10 outdoor sculptures for you to choose one or two, and you said, ‘I’ll take them all,’” says Hirst), but most he’s surprised about. “It’s 100 per cent Damien,” says McKillen. 

Might some of these new works find a permanent home at La Coste? “This [exhibition] is for our guests,” says McKillen. “First of all, our business is hospitality – it’s not one of our goals, selling. We never wanted to compete with all the galleries that represent our artists. The day we get into competition with our friends it’d be a disaster.”

“I’ve already had the galleries jumping all over me going: ‘How can we sell these?’” interjects Hirst. In fact, the show is being “Presented by Heni”, an art services company Hirst has been working with since 2016, which has been behind many of his recent extensive print runs, such as Currency and Paper Blossoms

“Damien is made for La Coste, and this show will push La Coste to its limits,” concludes McKillen. For both men, it’s the only way. 

Damien Hirst: The Light That Shines is at Château La Coste, 2750 Route de la Cride, 13610 Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, France, from 2 March to 23 June,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article