Damien Hirst Exhibition
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE2 9TG • April 4 – September 9, 2012
When Tate Modern announced that its first major retrospective of the work of the British artist Damien Hirst would coincide with this year’s summer Olympics it was easy to see it as cynical opportunism – cashing in on the name of one of the world’s most famous artists at a time when the city will be teeming with extra tourists. It’s possible though, that the Tate wanted to give as many people as they could the opportunity to assess Hirst’s work, as well as projecting an image of contemporary British art that is bold, brash, exciting and innovative – an image that works well with Tate Modern’s own brand.
Hirst himself is a controversial figure. Some people love his shaking up of the art establishment, his creative, anarchic energy and unstuffy, wide-boy image. Others hate him for an emphasis on money and bling, for what they see as a paucity of ideas, and for the fact that, for a very long time, he has not made any of the work himself – outsourcing it as he does to specialists and huge team of assistants – whilst raking in the cash and basking in the glory. Oh, and then there’s the face pulling (I’ve rarely seen a photo of Hirst where he is not pulling a face). But the history of art is filled with divisive personalities and though Hirst makes it difficult to ignore him, it’s best to try. It’s the work that matters.
In the main, I think the fact Hirst doesn’t make his work isn’t really an issue. Once you accept the notion of conceptual art then the ideas the artist is exploring, the questions they are asking, become everything, and it’s on that basis that Hirst’s work should be judged. That’s not to say that Hirst’s artistic practices should go unchallenged, in fact some of them are dubious to say the least. If ideas and concepts are given centre stage, then we have to ask questions about the originality and complexity of those ideas as well as Hirst’s treatment of them.
Many accusations of plagiarism have been leveled at him and his responses have ranged from expletive-filled defiance to quiet out-of-court settlement and sheepish shoulder shrugging. More recently, another artist and former friend of Hirst’s, John LeKay, has published a comparison of Hirst’s work against that of other artists, and accused him of stealing their ideas (including LeKay’s own crystal covered skull piece of 1993, made fourteen years before Hirst’s For the Love of God) whilst using his fame and money and skills as a self-publicist to steam-roller over any objections. Hirst has been quoted as saying, “Lucky for me, when I went to art school, we were a generation that didn’t have any shame about stealing other people’s ideas. You call it a tribute.”
This shows a very poor understanding of what it means to appropriate previously explored ideas or quote another artist’s work. In both cases, as any good student knows, there are things you do to guard against plagiarism: if you quote then you reference, and if you appropriate there’s a deal to be struck that involves the development or evolution of an idea into something new, different or unexpected. Hirst rarely does this. The only artist to whom he pays any direct and acknowledged tribute is Francis Bacon, which, unfortunately for him, invites comparison with work that his own just can’t stand up to. There’s a notable omission from this exhibition: Hirst’s Blue Paintings series of 2009, which showed at the Wallace Collection. The indebtedness to Bacon was explicit, as was Hirst’s inferiority as a painter, and the work was almost universally panned. Tate Modern are giving us only Hirst’s greatest hits, most of which date from the early nineties. This can only give the impression that Hirst’s best years are well behind him.
The first room allows you to see early examples of Hirst starting to explore his ideas and recurring themes. There’s a spot painting, in household gloss on board, the circles splodgy and running, the palate limited. It lacks the forethought of the later spot paintings and is somehow more energetic and endearing as a result. A series of kitchen pans, their bottoms brightly painted, hang in a row on the wall, and become another spot work, while glossy cardboard boxes cluster in a corner. All of these works indicate a desire, Hirst says, to use colour in a way that he can control, rather than feeling controlled by it, and this desire drives the development of the spot paintings into the pharmaceutical series that are shown in the rest of the exhibition. These are named after chemicals used for medical purposes, or as fertilizers, many of which have poisonous properties. The spots are precision placed, the spaces between them equal to the diameter of the spots themselves, and no colour is repeated, though there are variations of the same colour. Hirst’s obsession with these (there are now over 8000 of them) indicates his, and our, obsession with the medicalisation of daily life. Like his pharmacy installations, they point to our attempt to stave off death for as long as possible, which is part of the human condition, and illustrate our faith in medical science which has, for a lot of people, replaced faith in God.
The pharmacies themselves range in size and scope from bathroom cabinet scale to whole rooms. Some of them contain clusters of drugs that are used to treat particular conditions, others are based on Hirst’s family experience – using his grandmother’s personal prescriptions – and they all bring to mind the desire to make life and death as clean and painless as possible, as polished as the stainless steel implements ranged in large display cases. They also become like museums, alchemists’ laboratories, or apothecaries’ lairs, but as a recurring theme it is diluted by repetition and so loses its power rather than intensifying it.
The vitrines – glass cases containing a life cycle of birth and death – are still quite effective when you are confronted with them. A severed, skinned, cow’s head lies in an artful pool of congealing blood as flies feed on it, breed on it, lay eggs on it, are hatched on it, feed on it as maggots before turning into flies only to be killed by an Insectocutor. And so it goes. The ickyness of the objects involved, the faint smell of decay, make the vitrines a more visceral experience than the other dead animals involved in Hirst’s work, preserved as they are in chemicals and glass.
The shark in formaldehyde from 1991 is Hirst’s breakthrough, iconic work – possibly the single most famous piece of art created in the past 30 years. Its title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, sounds exactly like what it is – a line from a student essay. Hirst’s intention was to create fear in the viewer: ‘I thought, well, if I can get one in a big enough space, actually in liquid, big enough to frighten you, that you feel you’re in there with it, feel that it could eat you, it would work.’ But there is no terror here, only pathos. The once magnificent creature, lord of its domain, invincible in life, is reduced in death to a grey, wrinkly, saggy sack of degrading flesh, as we all will be. And that’s it, that’s the message. The title tells you everything you need to know, the artwork’s meaning apparently as closed off as the glass case containing it. The shark’s mouth is wide open, perhaps about to devour you, perhaps in an existential gape, but these days most likely executing a massive yawn. This is art that’s bored of itself.
The spin paintings, made by pouring household gloss paint onto a rotating canvas to produce energetic bursts of overlapping psychedelic colour, are the most pointless of Hirst’s output. As a defence mechanism, and in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism, one of the spin paintings on show here is called, Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kids’ stuff, lacking in integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, sensational, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa). So, in another one of those Hirst titles that tells you what you should think, he demonstrates that he knows what people have said or will say about these works but simply doesn’t care. Unfortunately, blowing artistic raspberries in response to criticism doesn’t work beyond a certain age. These spin paintings do nothing to convince me that they have any content beyond expressing a certain childish lack of control. Given that the same idea was carried out in the 1980s by Walter Robinson, to almost identical effect, Hirst’s version of this particular technique has nothing new to say.
The most successful and affecting work in the whole exhibition is In and Out of Love, dating from 1991. In a warm and humid white room, butterfly pupae are attached to large white canvasses hanging on the walls. Over time the pupae hatch into large, exotic butterflies that feed on bowls of fruit and the potted plants lining the space. The butterflies live and grow and mate and lay eggs and are born and die, and we enter, as if invited into a vitrine, to witness and experience it all, to see our own fates played out by these heartbreakingly beautiful creatures that flutter about, sometimes landing on you, often ignoring you completely. The environment forces you to slow down, to contemplate, to really experience the life cycle and the result is a genuinely affecting slow-burn meditation on death, much more effective than anything else Hirst has to offer.
In 2008 Sotheby’s presented 244 works by Hirst for sale over two days. Hirst apparently conceived this auction as a unified body of work, entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. Famously, or perhaps notoriously, the auction raised over 100 million pounds and was followed the next day by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the event that heralded the start of the current financial crisis. Laughably, Hirst described the sale as ‘a very democratic way to sell art’, presumably because he bypassed galleries with their sizeable commission fees. This seems to indicate that Hirst believes, like all good capitalists, that democracy consists purely of the ability and freedom to make more money. It’s also been claimed that the auction itself was an artistic performance, commenting on the art market, though accusations have flown about that prices for certain works were ‘propped up’ or even inflated by Hirst’s business colleagues bidding for them. Was this part of the ‘performance’? If so, Hirst made sure his ‘fee’ was premium.
Tate Modern presents, in a room decorated with golden wallpaper derived from covers of the sale catalogue, some of the work presented at Sotheby’s. The use of gold and precious stones predominates, the artificially manufactured diamonds displayed in cabinets in exactly the same way as pills are in his pharmacies, and both act as panaceas to death. In the centre of the room is another, smaller, shark in formaldehyde, entitled The Kingdom, just in case you don’t get the message that bling is useless in the face of death. Didn’t stop him pocketing the money from the sale though, did it? By the way, the same, limited edition golden wallpaper is available in the gift shop at £250 a roll, alongside other wallpapers decorated with butterflies or pills, priced at a very democratic £750. I was thinking I could get some to line my coffin with.
The exhibition ends (or begins if you visit it first, which I would recommend) in Tate Modern’s turbine hall. A specially built space has been created in which to display Hirst’s most famous work since the shark: For the Love of God (2007), a platinum cast of a skull covered with diamonds. This apparently cost £14 million to produce and there’s some dispute over whether the work has been sold or not, reportedly for £50 million, or whether this is again a ruse, or ‘performance.’ The space is a pitch black box room with the skull placed in the centre and presented as a holy relic. It’s undeniably beautiful, smaller than I expected, and an exquisitely wrought piece of craftsmanship. The lights directed onto it make it crackle and sparkle but it produces neither awe nor wonder, and acts in only a limited way as a reminder of death. Mainly it seems to be the culmination of many of Hirst’s themes but it’s as if he decided what he thought and felt about all these when he was about 14 and nothing has really changed except his spending power to render the works bigger, slicker, and with more vulgarity. There’s little development of process, no maturation of ideas or philosophy.
His materials – paint, dead animals, cigarette stumps, surgical implements and medicines, butterflies, diamonds – are all directed to act in the same way: as memento mori. Sometimes the results are laughably adolescent – making a giant ashtray and filling it with cigarette stumps, ash, fag packets, sweet wrappers and drugs paraphernalia and then calling it Crematorium is just one-dimensional and crass. The central problem is that much of Hirst’s work simply doesn’t bear repeated viewing. It’s based on impact as an artistic statement but this is no longer the shock of the new but the kind of impact that, once it’s worn off, leaves a vacuum.