Review: Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, 08.09.2012

I wrote this review for Irish art website arthub.ie. Click here to read the original.

“The best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She’s brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. The best [Damien Hirst] spot painting you can have by me is one by Rachel.”

For me, Damien Hirst does that thing that I think modern art does to a lot of people: he makes my brow wrinkle, my lips purse and my eyes squint. Who is this clown? In fact, while I’m at it, who’s Rachel?

As Britain’s reigning YBA (Young British Artist) Hirst has permeated popular consciousness like no other artist of his generation – certainly more so than his surname-less assistant Rachel. His work is characterised by its directness: it is deadpan and yet remarkably touching. It provokes outrage from some viewers and amusement in others.

In one article for The Mail on Sunday, the BBC art critic, Julian Spalding, described it as ‘con-art’ while The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment wrote, “For reasons that I don’t understand, [Hirst] insists on presenting himself as a fraud… And that’s a pity, because in Tate Modern’s full-scale retrospective he comes across as a serious – if wildly uneven – artist.”

Other critics have insisted that Hirst’s hypnotic power over the art world is simply a result of being famous. “Damien Hirst makes Damien Hirsts,” wrote Jerry Saltz in The Village Voice. “The paintings themselves are labels – carriers of the Hirst brand. They’re like Prada or Gucci. You pay more but get the buzz of a brand.” And this point, in my opinion, is the reason that Hirst is revered and reviled amongst critics. A buyer could easily purchase a ‘Rachel’ at a fraction of the cost of a Hirst. But while a Hirst is technically a ‘Rachel’, a ‘Rachel’ is certainly not a Hirst.

These are the eye-ball-spinning facts that send many critics into frenzy-mode. And they don’t stop at Spot paintings. In 2007, The Sunday Times restaurant critic, AA Gill, attempted to sell a painting of Joseph Stalin to Christie’s Auction House. The auction house rejected it. ‘They did not deal in Stalin or Hitler art,’ they said. Gill asked if that decision might be reconsidered if the Stalin were a Warhol or a Hirst. The answer was Yes. Gill contacted Hirst and requested that he paint a red clown nose over Stalin’s. Hirst agreed and the Stalin, which Gill originally bought for £200, sold for more than £100,000.

Stories like these have earned Hirst a reputation as a convoluted and talentless wheeler-dealer. Indeed, he is probably better known for the exaggerated headlines he’s generated over the years. Headlines like, “No, it’s not your fault you can’t see the genius in Damien Hirst’s work – there is none”.

And herein lies the problem: Hirst’s art is ubiquitous but more through newspaper headlines and photographic reproductions than through direct experience of the work. Last weekend, I visited the Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which accumulated more than twenty years of Hirst’s art, all of which was spread out over twelve rooms; finally offering London’s gallery-goers the opportunity to experience Hirst’s work directly.

It will perhaps sound naïve and a touch simplistic but what struck me throughout the exhibition were the colours. The vibrant aquamarine blues of Hirst’s cows and sheep immortalised in formaldehyde, and the overwhelming scale of his ‘spin’ paintings, and the austerity of his spot works.

Entering Room One, a large spot canvas stood propped against the wall as though the curators had forgotten to hang it. A hairdryer was positioned in the centre of the room and a ping-pong ball levitated above it. But the most interesting object in Room One was a photograph that hung on the wall, and which showed Hirst aged 16. Rather, it showed sixteen-year-old Hirst, a big smile across his face, posing beside a decapitated head in the Leeds University anatomy department. This photo, sandwiched in amongst early installation works was the first insight into what was to come: death, death and more death. Welcome to Hirst’s world of cadavers where sheep appear to be submerged underwater and sharks seem to swim on land.

Dead Head (1991)

For me at least, the exhibition was a little like a three-course meal. Room One was the starter. It looked great but lacked any substance. While the last room, Room Twelve was opulent and obnoxious. It was like a chocolate cake haemorrhaging more and more chocolate. After such a great main course in rooms Two – Eleven, it was simply too much.

As I moved between Room One and Room Two, Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990) came into focus. Small children clamoured around the glass, their hands spread, staring in as though enraptured. Their parents however tended to step back, wrinkling their noses at the smell, many of these looking disgusted. But A Thousand Years is the quintessential Hirst, with the cycle of life and death openly on display.

The work starts with a dead cow’s head, which lies flopped on the floor. When I visited the exhibition, the head had decomposed. Its eyes were missing, its fur was gone and the remaining flesh was red and sinewy. Blood leaked across the floor, thick and treacly like a raspberry syrup. In an adjoining vitrine a large white box stood in which maggots hatched and developed into flies, which then fed on the cow’s blood. Resting between the two vitrines was an Insect-o-cutor, which regularly zapped the bumble-bee-sized flies. It goes without saying that the air smacked with a subtle but putrid fetor.

A Thousand Years (1990)

From here, visitors had a perfect view of Hirst’s most famous and iconic work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) as well as one half of Hirst’s, Mother and Child Divided (1993), or ‘The Cows’ as it’s probably easier to refer to it as.

Hirst’s Physical Impossibility is probably his best-known work but the reproductions, which I’ve seen on the Internet, in books and on gift shop postcards, are a whole other kettle of fish (couldn’t help it!) when compared with the real thing. To begin with, it’s huge. And most bizarrely, it appears to be smiling.

Where Andy Warhol produced silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe and Chairman Mao, Hirst in a similar such vein brings one of Stephen Spielberg’s more terrifying on screen stars into the gallery space. Cue the music and prepare to come face-to-face with Jaws!

Of course, the irony here is that the killer, his teeth bared, mouth open, ready to swallow my hand and go back for my arm, has been killed. And in death, he’s vulnerable. Eloquently, Hirst parodies popular culture and makes an articulate point about death – the incomprehensibility of it. The sheer strangeness of it.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living (1991)

So, given how strange and terrifying death is for most, Hirst can’t help but scrutinise the absurdity of smoking in a culture obsessed with life longevity. In Dead Ends Died Out, Examined (1993), a large display cabinet exhibited lines of extinguished cigarette ends, all rubbed out, some standing up, each displayed like a prehistoric fossil or precious stone. It suggested how odd smoking was, how, in thousands of years when the twenty-first century is part of some ancient world, that archaeologists might frown trying to explain or indeed understand the curious and ancient habit.

Medicine cabinets were also prevalent throughout the exhibition and in one room Hirst set up a full-scale installation entitled Pharmacy, in which presses ran across the walls and sterile white tubes and packages with generic brand names were lined up as premeditative weapons against illness and other maladies. Above the installation, a green fibre-optic pharmacy cross flashed, as though the zone were invested with some kind of religious power capable of staving off death.

Pharmacy (1992)

Preceding Hirst’s Pharmacy was the butterfly installation, In and Out of Love. This room, like the proceeding rooms in the exhibition, lacked the brilliance of Hirst’s earlier works – the pickled cows, shark and sheep of Hirst’s early career. That said however, it was probably the most exciting piece in the show.

Heaters were installed in each corner of the room to create a muggy, balmy atmosphere. On white tables, bowls of rotting fruit were left out, and on the walls, cocoons hung from canvases while brightly coloured flowers grew below. Before I had entered the room I wasn’t entirely sure why I was queuing exactly, or why the entrance had been cordoned off with plastic sheets. It soon became clear though. Unlike A Thousand Years, where death and regeneration are experienced through the boundaries of glass, the viewer gets to enter the life-cycle process. And in this case, dozens of different size and colour butterflies flapped through the artificial fug and flittered across the floor. In later rooms, the same species and brightly coloured wings that had previously walked across my hand were recycled into large Gothic-like window cycles. It was odd. Something, which was so real only rooms ago, was now dead, glued down, painted over and encased in glass.

In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)

The last room in the exhibition will probably go down as one of the worst sights I have ever seen. The walls were gold, the works were clones and the only thing that separated each work from its older sibling was the fistfuls of diamonds slotted in or glued on where possible. The final work in the exhibition, which stood between the Gold Room and the gift shop, was Hirst’s 2006 piece, The Incomplete Truth. Here, a dove flutters upward like the Holy Spirit except that the spirit appears to have gotten lost and become wedged between this Gold Room and the gift store. All religious connotations as a result are inflected with irony as the curators play with idea that wealth and consumerism are the core religious beliefs of the modern retail society. Exiting, I couldn’t help but smile.

The Incomplete Truth (2006)

Hirst once scoffed to his good pal David Bowie, “I’d never show at the Tate, that’s for dead artists.” At 47, Hirst is far from dead but over the years his art has certainly begun to stale. The Tate exhibition dutifully reflected Hirst’s varied career and exposed the visceral nature of his earlier works in a way that no postcard or Google Image could. Works like In and Out of Love stunningly rejuvenated the white-wall space and drummed a sense wonder and excitement into the air. But the exhibition also exposed the older Hirst and his later work as repetitive and insipid, like a brand name that chugs on regardless of originality or flavour. More than anything however, this exhibition made me excited. It reminded me that amidst the convoluted ideas, the white-plaster walls and the people wandering around and pontificating the minutiae of Hirst’s Wikipedia page, that art’s a lot of fun. But especially when its creator is a toothy-teen posing with a decapitated cadaver.

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