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.

The Monster Mash

Angus Powell, Monsters EP:

Image

Wales — she’s like the shy sister of these cold waters.

Last year, she was spotted making a wind-swept appearance in the movie Submarine, exposing her fabled grey skies, hair-raising cold nights and desolate landscapes. Her Kingdom, famously dotted with pop royalties, including Under Milk Wood writer Dylan Thomas, and the always-indefatigable Manic Street Preachers, has exposed an underbelly sprinkled with rapt lyricism.

Now, step out from under the belly, Angus Powell.

Powell’s EP Monsters is a four-track taster of things to come from Powell’s debut album, expected 2013. It’s a tense listening throughout, and Powell’s lo-fi voice, which is slightly falsetto, sounds a lot like Elliot Smith trying to reach a high-note. Oddly when the Smith comparison relents in final track, Trenches, it is replaced by a voice, which in the opening lines sounds strangely likes Nico’s — who out there thought that All Tomorrow’s Parties would do a stop-off in Wales?

Without a doubt, the EP’s standout track is Special with its earnest chorus of, “You used to say that I was special, you used to swear we’d be okay, so how did I end up here today?” Powell’s voice is at its most melodic here, and the acoustic guitar, jingle-y tambourine and backing vocals make Special the most finger-tapping track of the lot.

Opening track Monsters combines Powell’s high-pitch, quiet vocals with a tinkling piano that grows and grows over the song’s three-minute run-time. Upside Down on the other hand shows off a sweet guitar refrain complete with atmospheric sounds, hinting at an interest in detail and layer.

Powell’s EP will certainly strike a chord with many listeners. One even wrote on his SoundCloud, “These lyrics are devastatingly real… They hit home hard.” For a newbie, Powell certainly shows promise.

Review: Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Frank Ocean,

Channel ORANGE,

Def Jam

“PEACE UP, A-TOWN!” – Everyone knows what comes next: jarring beats that sound like lightsabers ping-ponging their way across a checkers board. But those four syllables were a musical call for duty it seems. It was as if the pop world stood up, took out a pen and wrote itself a note: the future was going to be a treadmill of unabated urban ditties featuring repetitive choruses and 35-second guest appearances from global rap stars with a yo-yo long list of hit singles and guest vocals. It was a two-fingered goodbye to the likes of Destiny’s Child, and a ‘follow me’ gesture to Chris Brown, Rihanna and Co.

But a few weeks ago, Frank Ocean leaked his single, “Pyramids,” a nine-minute epic that coalesces the narratives of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Cleopatra, and Cleopatra the stripper, who works at a bar, called The Pyramid. The track confidently works its way through fast-paced club beats and a slowed down warbling of, “Working at The Pyramid tonight,” ending with a crooning electric guitar that underpins the song with equal doses of angst inflected with despair.

Unlike a lot of commercial pop records, Ocean’s new album, Channel ORANGE, is a carefully devised piece of work that comes without any padding or Polyfill pop songs. It oozes confidence throughout without becoming cocky, and assimilates a range of style without ever copying or sounding tedious.

Opening track “Start” doesn’t begin with a bang but rather a series of everyday noises: the TV, an iPod, some videogame beeps. Silence and noise blend together to culminate with the orchestral strings that herald the second single on the album, “Thinkin Bout You”. And Ocean’s falsetto croon of, “Do you not think so far ahead, because I’ve been thinking about forever,” resonates a subtle yet itching type of romance, which supersedes the everyday pop-hyperbole of love-lost.

“Thinkin Bout You” is followed with a witty minute-long interlude, “Fertilizer”, which absorbs the TV jingle-rhetoric before blazing headlong into the album’s best tracks, including “Sierra Leone, “Crack Rocks” and my personal favourites, “Pilot Jones”, “Forrest Gump” and “Super Rich Kids,” which features Earl Sweatshirt of rap co-op, Odd Future.

In songs such as “Forrest Gump” and particularly “Bad Religion,” the album’s overwhelming sense of self-awareness can be felt. “Forrest Gump” features soulful coos of “Running on my mind, Forrest, my mind” – Ocean referencing the film and the Deep South through a coalition of music and lyrics. “Bad Religion” on the other hand grasps hold of a traditional gospel sound but rather than confessing in a church or to the preacher, Ocean reveals his insecurities to a Muslim taxi driver, describing “the truth of my disguise” and the problems that “being in love with one who never loves you” can bring.

Without a doubt, Channel ORANGE is probably the most intricate and engaging album I’ve heard this year. With subtle nods towards Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince and even a sprinkling of Pink Floyd-like guitars in “Pyramids,” it is, at its core, a love story without the happy end. And just the way Channel ORANGE began, it ebbs away with the sound of a car engine, footsteps the jingling of keys and the close of the door.

Singles review

The XX, Angels:

It’s probably a regressive way to begin (and an even more regressive way to think), but generally speaking, anything with the word ‘Angel’ in it is probably a bit shit. Think about it, Angel Delight; Angels by Robbie Williams; One of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls being named “Angel” after Stefani’s debut album, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” Yep, as pop-culture diagnoses go, it’s clear that ‘Angel’ is interchangeable with either, ‘Total Rubbish’ or ‘What The Bloody Hell is THIS?’

Fortunately however, The XX’s new single, Angels, is neither rubbish nor some awful, pink powdered dessert concoction.

Opening with an electric guitar, a subdued plucking of strings carries Romy Madley Croft’s voice like a treadmill threatening to slow to a stop. Each chorus is bracketed with a pause, giving the song an almost chapter-in-a-book feel as it charts its terrain, pauses and starts all over again.

It’s very much an XX tune except more crafted and far from monotonous. Whether the same can be said about their new album waits to be seen however.

Bloc Party, Octopus:

I’m beginning to think music writers are more affected by ‘Second Album Syndrome’ than musicians are. It’s like some kind of journalistic Tourette’s; “Can you discuss the new second album?”– TWITCH! “Was there a lot of pressure for your second album to be as commercially successful as the first? — TWITCH! “Did you worry that your second album might alienate fans? — TWITCH!

Of course everyone knows that third albums are where it starts to go awry. And awry it went for Bloc Party. While “Intimacy” boasted some great songs like “Talons” and “Signs”, the album was radically different and incredibly weak when compared to its siblings, “A Weekend in The City” and “Silent Alarm”. Thriving from the electronic wave that swept across music in the late 2000s, the album was gimmicky and a bit mundane.

That said, I’ve always maintained faith in Bloc Party and waved the Bloc Party flag whenever I could. And apparently, it’s been worth it. The new single is an absolute cracker!

Brimming and bubbling over with energy, it’s as if the guys cooked the tune in vodka and now that tune is raring to go out dancing and slosh some lager and wiggle its double-clef bum to a catalogue of Brit-pop hits. Admittedly, the lyrics are a bit weak, the chorus ending with a chant of “I don’t know why I feel like crying, Well come on, come on, Say come on, come on.”

Not exactly Paul Simon but I’ll continue to wave the flag.

Two Door Cinema Club, Sleep Alone:

Two Door Cinema Club are releasing their second album soon — TWITCH!

The new single, Sleep Alone, was previewed on BBC1 last night, and made available for free-download for a 24 hour period on the group’s website. It’s a typical enough Two Door Cinema Club song: kicking off with a catchy drumbeat, the chorus is where the fun’s at while the lyrics serve to cushion the aforementioned pop climax.

Once it’s sound-tracked every ad on television, I’m sure the tune will have truly welded itself into my brain, but currently it doesn’t seem to have the hooks that “Come Back Home” and “This is The Life” did. Then again, “This is The Life” essentially had no lyrics, except ‘This is The Life’ being sung over, and over again. Time will tell, I suppose.

The Stone Roses, Phoenix Park, 5 July.

Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses’ 1996-split has been well documented, and the subsequent solo-careers of Ian Brown and John Squire have almost served no other purpose than to cement The Roses’ demise. But in October 2011, everything changed as Brown declared, “This is a live resurrection. You’re all invited, so you’d better be there!” After an almost two-decade hiatus, The Stone Roses had at last returned. The Second Coming was here.

The last time that Stone Roses performed in Ireland was 1995, and tonight, the group’s return feels almost religious. In the distance, an electric crucifix from the previous week’s Eucharistic Congress procession towers over the Phoenix Park. And in the stadium, 50,000 fans are knee-deep in muck, most of these kitted out in rain-hats and Stone Roses tees, or sporting haircuts that footnote The Roses’ front man. Ian Brown was right: this was a live resurrection. And everyone had read the invite card.

Incredibly, since The Stone Roses called it a day more than fifteen years ago, a riptide of pseudo-religious sentiment has carried the band away. Like crusaders who waged war against the unbearably cool Manchester music scene of the 1980s, the group toiled against the oppression of black clothes, bleak lyrics and the nihilism that came with Ian Curtis’ death and the Blue Monday synths that followed. And just like a miracle, the sense of disbelief and wonder that the band will soon be on stage and performing to fans of old and fans of new – many so new, they were not born at The Roses’ peak – settles in the air as The Wailers conclude a fantastic set, leaving a packed audience alone to shuffle and shift in the descending restlessness.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they’re here!

Ten minutes late, Ian Brown, one arm raised victoriously and grinning, followed by Mani, Reni and Squire, struts onstage. And then, in an instant, as sudden as a light switch turning on, a throbbing bass permeates across the park and a cheer of recognition runs through the crowd as fans bellow (and prematurely bellow) the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’. Of course, the possibility that the group might be anything but adored by this lot is laughable.

As Brown works his front-man magic, striding between both sides of the stage and jumping down momentarily to hi-five and shake hands with the front row of cheerers and chanters, Reni, Mani and Squire show that age hasn’t caught up with or compromised their talent. In fact, Squire’s indulgent guitar outros are a prominent feature throughout the night and even through the sea of front-man charisma, Brown occasionally appears to be a little sceptical as to what to do next; a quick jaunt down to the other end of the stage perhaps? This is obviously the rock star equivalent of ‘What do I do with my hands?’

The night ends, inevitably, with ‘I Am The Resurrection’, and despite its almost ten-minute run time, this evening’s disciples are more invigorated than they were an hour ago. Because the closer we edge to the closing note, the closer we edge to a dream ending. A dream that so many people here have waited almost two decades to come true.

The four-pack assemble centre-stage at the song’s close and hug one another, pumping their fists in triumph, hugging again and thundering a farewell chant of ‘In Dublin’s Fair City…’ The lights turn on and with them the dream that no one thought could ever come true evaporates into the nightmare of Dublin transport.

School of Cambridge-based group, Alt-J.

Last month, The Guardian asked, “who could have foreseen an unknown Cambridge art-rock quartet landing in the top 20 with their debut album?

A fortnight later, I wonder, who could have foreseen a top 20 rock quartet translate Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ into a modern-day, easy-to-grip, three-minute gangster video?

The answer it turns out, is the four-piece, triangle-lovers, Alt-J:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPH89HIBLiw

Singles and songs review

Scissor Sisters

Scissor Sisters, Magic Hour

Best in Me

 

Best in Me might not be a single (yet), but its laid-back attitude, which perhaps sounds a little pedestrian on first listening, is so even-tempered and chilled that it’s like floating in a swimming pool before ducking under the water and swirling around in circles, only to emerge for a towel and Tahiti cocktail. The song’s reprise, which comes with coos of “You take what’s good and make it better,” is an apt description of what makes this song so great: it’s the sound we all associate with the five-set but polished, stripped back and above all, better. By blending Shears’ catchy falsetto with the band’s easy-to-listen-to electronics, the Sisters have managed to devise an easy-to-stomach dance floor ballad that comes minus any overindulgent, melodramatic choruses.

Maybe it’ll never make its way into the singles totem but in the song’s own words, “May not hear it on MTV, no big deal, fine by me.”

Alt-J (∆), An Awesome Wave,

Matilda

Presumably hitting ‘alt-j’ on your Mac computer sends an instant, automated message with the subject line “CODE NERD” to a 24-hour hotline dedicated to those who spend too much time exploring Apple keyboard functions. It also, for the record, makes a triangle symbol not unlike this one: ∆.

Bringing their Steve-Jobs brand of nerd to music, Alt-J’s single Matilda sees the group quoting English folkster, Johnny Flynn – a chap also known for quoting- over a medley of strings and an undercurrent of tip-tapping drums, all the while declaring, This is from Matilda. Initially I thought this song sounded a little like a Gotye-Elliot Smith regurgiation but on second-take, well, I had to do a double-take and concede that it was actually very good. Damn you, oh sour, reluctant praise.