Damien Hirst’s Tate retrospective is big, it’s bold, it’s shamelessly opulent in places and breathtakingly beautiful in others.
Once upon a time, back in the hazy days of my art foundation year there was one artist who everyone talked about. Some loved him, a few were on the bench (myself included) and some hated him- but no one had nothing to say about him. This artist was of course Damien Hirst. What is at once impressive and unbelievable about Hirst’s persona is that, unlike the majority of the world’s artists he is still as prominent and commanding today as he was five, ten or twenty years ago.
It seems that Hirst’s old critics have been succeeded by a new breed, who focus more on the artist’s accumulation of wealth, than his cutting up of cows and breeding of flies. So, what does the Tate Modern’s new retrospective of his life’s work have to teach us about the man behind the money?
Well for a start the show seems more focused towards Hirst as an artist than as a business man, although not wanting to miss a trick there are two gift shops; one at the end of the show and a smaller shop in the turbine hall, selling everything from key rings to original signed prints (averaging at about £15,000). On entering the show, the first room contains Hirst’s work from the beginning of his career; brightly painted pots line one wall, a ping pong ball hovers above a hair drier, a collection of coloured boxes clustered in a corner, a photograph of the artist with a severed human head and the first of his spot paintings lent against the wall. The first room is by no way the crowd puller, but I feel it is the most important room in the show because it gives Hirst’s later work a lineage and context. It shows ideas that would later become central to the way he made work. From his obsession with life and death, order and even his exploration of colour in the form of spots, which seem to have become public enemy number one due to their mass production and huge selling prices (lets not forget that grids, spots and monochromes are still widely used by other highly respected artist, consider Gerhard Richter’s colour charts for example).
The show contains many of the usual suspects, contained in three connecting rooms in the middle of the gallery. Starting in the center we see Hirst’s most recognizable work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) a large shark in a tank of formaldehyde (now looking old), Mother and Child Divided (2007) a calf and its mother cut in half and each displayed in two glass boxes and A Thousand Years (1990) which contains a cows head, an electric fly killer and an ominous white box containing maggots. The latter is considered by most to be the artists most powerful and defiantly absorbing work. In a sick twist implemented by the artist the flies live in constant danger and will most likely meet their end by flying into the electric trap hanging ominously above them.
Other rooms in the show contain rows of cabinets containing pharmaceuticals of all kinds, surgical tools, fish, cigarette butts and man-made diamonds. There is also a humid room containing hundreds of butterflies that gently float around and sometimes land on visitors. To top it off the Tate have closed off half of the turbine hall and built a black box room containing Hirst’s gleamingly grotesque pimped out platinum cast human skull, covered in 8,601 flawless diamonds and crowned with a 52.4 carat pink diamond.
There is a lot of work on show at Damien Hirst’s Tate retrospective, it’s big, it’s bold, it’s shamelessly opulent in places and breathtakingly beautiful in others. And as you would expect death is never far behind, lurking underneath the surface of the diamond skull, in the rows and rows of medicine cabernets and in the butterflies that will eventually die in the gallery space. Hirst’s best work happens when he probes at the human condition, exposing our fear of dying, our compulsive habits and finally greed.
Every review I read about Hirst’s new show at the Tate Modern seems to be negative and entirely focused on the price tag attached to the name and work, but I tend to look at Hirst in another way. He has always done things in extremes, he likes to shock, that’s why he was and still is the first port of call of many young artists. I see his money as an extension of this need to shock… and hey if he spends some of it that’s good for the economy right? So go to the show and make your own mind up. Damien Hirst is easy to hate, but I find much more interesting to like.