Damien Hirst’s Retrospective: A Fresh Look
Posted By Tom on October 25, 2012
Tate Modern, review by Sophia Martin-Pavlou
Damien Hirst’s art makes people angry. That is a fact. In fact, just the use of the word ‘art’ in the context of Hirst gets the blood of many boiling, for it is a commonly-held opinion that his works don’t deserve such a title. Since his first, self-curated exhibition Freeze, in 1989, he and his work have taken quite the beating, earning labels such as ‘insulting’, ‘absurd’, and even the newly-invented term ‘Con Art/Artist’. His million-making pieces are, to put it lightly, subjects of controversy.
And so the dawning of Tate Modern’s retrospective of his work has predictably given rise to the next wave of criticism directed at Hirst. Cutting reviews have emerged in proliferation, and although many jump to the defence of the retrospective’s curator, Ann Gallagher, who seems to be viewed as someone who has done the best she could with an uninspiring collection, the general consensus is that Hirst simply can’t deliver, even if Gallagher can.
In spite and arguably because of this, the retrospective is surely quite an exciting prospect. Even if you’ve decided that you’re firmly anti-Hirst (and many in my experience have decided this, even without having been to actually see the work), you might perceive the exhibition as an opportunity to scoff at how tasteless and pointless you think his works are, and to revel in the inevitable flourish of scathing condemnation that was bound to ensue.
Personally, I was excited for other reasons. Hirst’s works, bright, loud, in-your-face, large, deathly, confrontational, tacky, I knew would not be an ‘enormous disappointment’ to me as they were to some reviewers, and I was not wrong. On entering the exhibition, you are faced with Hirst’s youth, and the very poignancy of colour that Noel Fielding has been so mocked for picking up on and delighting in during Channel 4’s recent show, Damien Hirst: The First Look. For a moment one forgets the screaming eminence of mortality that surrounds so many of Hirst’s works and is absorbed by the fun, light-hearted, geometric pieces of his early artist-hood. Boxes is a map of colour and shapes that sits, as though folded, across the crevice between two walls, whilst 8 Pans, Kitchen Cupboard and What Goes Up Must Come Down create a bizarre but fantastic kind of domestic environment when grouped together like this.
The other rooms house Hirst’s more famous works; the ones every viewer has been anticipating. You are taken on an adventure that involves all kinds of sights and smells, from a rotten carcass amidst a sea of hungry flies (A Thousand Years) to a white dove poised in flight and encased in formaldehyde (The Incomplete Truth), with a breath-taking journey in between. What is striking and effective about the exhibition is the viewer’s uncompromised involvement with the pieces, the inability to escape from really interacting with them, being with them and part of them. A butterfly on your shoulder, for example, is not something that you expect to encounter when walking round a gallery, and nor does one expect to find oneself caught in a narrow space between two separate tanks that accommodate a cow and a calf, both sliced in half. There is a sheer physicality in the experience, and also in the works themselves, which have all been totally exploited for their materials, whether it is the insides of a preserved animal or the glistening surface of a pill (or two).
Critics seem positively underwhelmed by Hirst’s shark (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), bored by it and unimpressed that it is not the original but a ‘younger model’, and yet I can’t see how the huge open mouth of an enormous shark faced head on would fail to terrify anybody. Hirst’s desire is that ‘you feel you’re in there with it, feel that it could eat you’, and he was spot on. When you walk around the tank finally to meet the grimacing head and have it stare you in the face, the apparent barrier between the two of you suddenly feels less robust, and the fear that Hirst clearly hoped to capture, to instil, is conspicuously present.
The themes are repetitive; about this there is no doubt, and Hirst’s critics certainly don’t leave it unsaid. Cigarettes after cigarettes, pills after pills, butterflies after butterflies. But it seems to me that although, yes, the materials reappear, the ideas are also developed, the effects are sharpened. We go from seeing flies swarming, festering, dying, to a huge, dense mass of them accumulated into a piece entitled Black Sun that turns them into an ironic symbol of light and hope. We witness spots and spots of colour throughout the exhibition culminate in Remembrance in the last room, an off-white Spot Painting with gold leaf, which rejects the years of attempting to ‘control’ colour and instead embraces a completely different ethos; a delicacy and purity that suggests a kind of calm after the storm of multi-coloured, multi-sized Spot Paintings preceding it.
Damien Hirst will always be contentious, but he will also always be exciting. No matter how much cynicism is fired at his work, the amazed and enchanted expressions on so many faces of those who go to view his work cannot be denied or erased, and neither can the fact that he is an important figure in today’s art world. His art is there, first and foremost, to really be experienced and felt, and if anything, the commotion surrounding the prices that his works reach only makes him more interesting whilst simultaneously vilifying him. But Damien Hirst is no villain, he’s an artist, and a trip to the Tate to see his retrospective is definitely worth a visit before the media makes up your mind for you.
Sophia is a first-year Art History student at Oxford University. Last year she spent six months immersing herself in the art of South America and she will use this summer as an opportunity to do the same in Europe. She is a keen writer and aspires to combine her passions of art, travelling and journalism.