Sabah Mathur of Saffronart visits the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern, London
London: Damien Hirst is quickly becoming an international phenomenon. After a brief taste of his work at the India Art Fair earlier this year, the large-scale retrospective of his work at the Tate presented an interesting opportunity for a more meaningful engagement with his artistic career. The show is a survey of the work of one of Britain’s richest and most prominent artists, who emerged on the art scene as part of the YBA movement of the 1990s. As I wandered through this ambitious exhibition of an artist who has continually been in the media spotlight over the last 20 years, I realised why Hirst’s work has always been described as controversial. While it evokes feelings of delight for some, it provokes, disturbs and disgusts others. Critics have been quick to label his work ‘con art’, but his popularity can be measured by the queues of people in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, waiting to see the exhibition.
The show comprises works spanning Hirst’s career, including photography, painting, sculpture and installation. Spread over fourteen rooms, it charts the artist’s work from his undergraduate days through to the Sotheby’s auction of 2008, where 244 new works by Hirst were presented directly by the artist for auction. The first room, containing his early work, is colourful and fun. Hirstian themes that recur throughout the exhibition are introduced: namely, death and mortality, spots, interesting titles, and, via the block sculpture Boxes, the compartmentalising of things. The rooms following this one are filled with Hirst’s archetypal works from the animals preserved in formaldehyde and the Natural History series to the giant spin paintings, the medicine cabinets and his famous spot paintings. Hirst’s tendency to obsessively repeat himself becomes quite obvious and there did not seem to be much point in including so many spot paintings and medicine cabinets in the exhibition.
The theme of life and death underpins the majority of the works included in the show. Hirst’s works are explicitly concerned with the fundamental dilemmas of human existence. Crematorium, a disproportionately large ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ash, can be seen as a reminder of the inevitability of death. What appears to be a lifetime’s accumulation of the remains of smoking can also be seen to double as the cremated remains of the human body.
Two other fantastic representations of the life cycle can be seen in A Thousand Years and In and Out of Love. The former is an installation of a glass vitrine in which maggots hatch and develop into flies, which then feed on a severed cow’s head. Many of the flies meet their end on an insect-o-cutor while others survive to continue the cycle. Hirst takes the principle of bringing real objects into the gallery a step further in this work, creating a literal enactment of birth, death and decay. He does it again in the second installation where the themes of life and death as well as beauty and horror are highlighted. In and Out of Love is a recreation from Hirst’s first solo exhibition in 1991 where in one room, with a specifically maintained humid environment, white canvases were embedded with pupae. Butterflies hatched from these and flitted around the room, feeding on sugar water and flowers, mating and laying eggs. In a second room Hirst showed eight brightly coloured canvases with dead butterflies on their surface and also placed tables in the room with ashtrays full of cigarettes on them. As Hirst has said, in this work the building became the vitrine. For some, this confinement of butterflies to one room is a melancholy prospect, while for others it is fascinating to see so many butterflies flutter around and sometimes even sit on them! Some of the butterflies certainly alighted on my shoulder, only to be promptly flicked off by the security guards.
Dead butterflies reappear as a symbol of beauty and the inherent fragility of life in works such as Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven where they are arranged into complex patterns reminiscent of medieval stained glass church windows. Interestingly, in I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds kaleidoscopic mandala-like forms recall Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The title is taken from the Bhagavad Gita.
Dead animals are used in many of Hirst’s works. Vitrines are used as devices to impose control on the fragile subject-matter contained within them. The carcasses of animals are preserved as in life, but at the same time are emphatically dead. Hirst also explores the theme of life and death through one of his most famous works For the Love of God. With this skull that is set with 8,601 diamonds, Hirst is trying to celebrate life by saying ‘to hell with death’ and has been quoted saying, “…what better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence.”
While walking through the exhibition it very quickly became evident that this was very expensive art. A lot of money must have been paid to set the diamonds in For the Love of God, and to make the vitrine for A Thousand Years. Expense is built into these works and is part of their aesthetic. One of the last rooms stands testament to Hirst’s financial success with its glittering disco-like appearance. The works in this room, featured in the 2008 auction, are studded with gold and diamonds. However, the themes remain the same although now in a more opulent form.
Whether you consider Hirst’s work macabre or whether you are excited by it, there is no denying that it leaves a lasting impact. While some of his works may be getting repetitive, many of them remain engaging. His use of dualities is summed up by the exhibit in the final room. In The Incomplete Truth a dove is suspended in formaldehyde as if in mid flight. The dove represents hope, peace, and the Holy Spirit. Yet the title of the work remains equivocal.
Read more about this exhibition.
Take a video tour of the exhibition http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturecritics/charlesspencer/9217107/Alas-Ive-now-seen-Damien-Hirst-in-his-true-colours.html