The Apotheosis of Hirst
4th of April through 9th of September 2012
The expected controversy has failed to materialise. Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate plays all the irreverent cards that have made the artist the most famous and richest in the world—cows sawn in half, sharks in formaldehyde, flies sizzling on the insectocutor, splattered and live butterflies and of course the famous diamond encrusted skull. They are all here: the circus has come to town with all its best acts and crowds are pouring in, as expected. Queues recoil inside the Turbine Hall, where tickets are sold, and reform just outside the exhibition entrance. But could it be that we are no longer bemused by the art and that its original shock factor has rapidly dated?
There may have not been controversy in the press; but there surely is frenzy in the galleries. With the Olympic games coming to town, Tate could not miss the opportunity to offer something for everyone, something entertaining and of course lucrative: Hirst’s show is a blockbuster. The equivalent of a concert by Madonna or U2; you know it’s going to be sold out regardless of what they’ll sing and how good they’ll be. With this in mind, it is worth remembering that Hirst is the producer of the shiniest and most eye catchy pop art since Warhol. His only real competitor is Jeff Koons, who regularly contends his spot on the throne for richest living artist in the world.
Now nearing 50, Hirst’s accent and body language still clearly position the man as a working class exponent who’s won the biggest ever jackpot on the national lottery. His shirt hanging out, a visible piece of bling here and there and showy shades a la Bono are just carefully selected accessories in the construction of the contemporary pop art genius he wants to be. There is something rather fascinating about the simplicity and directness with which Hirst speaks about his work: he projects genuineness. He is usually not inclined to talk money when it comes to his pieces, but we know he surely is inclined to making it—this is essential part of being a true pop artist, after all.
The retrospective at Tate is overall very enjoyable. Galleries are brightly lit, with most wall painted pristine “gallery white”, making the artwork’s bold clinical sharpness and stark presence shine out loud. The organisation is roughly chronological, at least through the first few rooms gathering some of his early pieces. During the press preview Hirst revealed himself to be rather embarrassed by some of the works in the first room of the exhibition. 8 Pans in particular, a piece from 1987 which consists of, erm…, literally eight pans coated in glossy household paint of different colours and hang straight on the wall, seems to be his least favourite. The other works in this room, Boxes, from his Freeze show of 1988 and What Goes Up, Must Come Down from 1994 betray a possibly too juvenile approach to art making for the man who put a shark in tank and called it art. Viewers are however in for a shock with the following rooms, where Hirst’s classic motives of medicine cabinets, animals in formaldehyde and dot paintings are all displayed together. The exhibition layout presents three communicating rooms offering a tour de force of Hirst’s back catalogue: The shark, cows, flies all become visible at unison dazzling the viewer but simultaneously diluting dramatic focus; the overall effect suggests fan-fair rather than art exhibition.
At the centre of room two lies A Thousand Years, a work from 1990 that brought the killing of insects within the walls of the gallery space. According to Hirst, the sculpture functions as a self-contained life cycle. In a large bi-parted glass case, maggots hatch from white minimalist box, they metamorphize into adult flies, and feed on a severed cow’s head. Hanging from the upper part of the glass cabinet, an insectocutor means the end for the majority of the insects housed in the piece. In 1990, when it was first exhibited, the work stirred media frenzy in the UK, propelling Hirst to the traditionally art-repellent pages of the tabloids. In the artist’s conception, flies symbolise people with the closed system of A Thousand Years mirroring our world in its mechanistic functioning exposed to the bone. Quite simply, we come to life, feed, become sexually mature, mate and eventually die from natural causes or by accident. The work bewilders viewers. Regardless of the fact that it is one of Hirst’s most famous pieces, its physical, mastodontic presence, the swarming of flies inside it, and the intense smell of death it exudes, prove overwhelming. Like the most inspired work of abstract expressionism, A Thousand Years can only truly be understood upon encounter in the gallery space—no image, whether printed or on film can render the uneasiness this work evokes.
In 1992, Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde and housed in a large glass case, also hit the headlines. The work generated great controversy, and amongst other things it was responsible for bringing the topic of animals in contemporary art to wider audiences. Most notably the British tabloid The Sun, reported the famous story titled ‘£50,000 for fish without chips’ rendering comedic at once the work, its alleged artistic qualities, and the seemingly absurd value assigned to it by the art market. Whether we like it or not, the artwork has already secured its place in the History of Art book, whilst simultaneously finding a space in the minds of the many who know it without having even seen it in the flesh, and who may come to this exhibition to see it for the first time. Damien Hirst’s shark re-stages a relatively traditional encounter with the ‘animal in art’ based on the notion of the sublime. It does so by invoking in the viewer primordial and overwhelming responses triggered by the presence of one of the most dreaded natural predators. In Hirst’s vision, it was essential that the shark be “big enough to eat you” in order to effectively achieve the desired effect. When looked head on, the shark is meant to trigger pure ‘animal fear’ in the viewer, suggesting an instinctual connection with our pre-historic ancestors for whom nature was not a subjugated external entity in which to indulge, but an all encompassing system of life and death, where death could come at any time in the shape of a larger predator. This overwhelming sense of fear that metaphorically removes us from the top of the food chain entirely functions on the dynamics of the sublime, particularly, the evoked sense of impotency experienced in front of a potentially deadly force of nature. However, in this conception, the sublime only functions when the viewer is somewhat at a distance or protected from the source of overwhelming fear and therefore safe from destruction—a certain pleasure in panic can be found. This is the overriding paradox that in Hirst is embodied by the glass-tank, the element that visually prevents the shark from ‘killing’ the viewer.
All around the shark, are Hirst’s famous medicine cabinets containing pharmaceutical packaging. These are amongst Hirst’s most interesting works for they make us aware of something we relentlessly take for granted: the role played by medicine in our daily lives, and the way we relate to the life-saving power of medicine. Each mirroring a different part of the human body or a specific condition, the cabinets embody the essentially drastic shift of faith from God to science that we all embrace when death beacons at the horizon. The theme of death and mortality is of course overriding in Hirt’s work and the exhibition itself perhaps brings some of the most famous works to the attention of the viewer a little too often. A whole room is dedicated to Pharmacy, his major installation from 1992 which unfortunately appears tired after having already seen quite a few of the earlier medicine cabinets in the previous rooms.
The show stealer surely is In and Out of Love from 1991 which is here re-staged for the first time. It was Hirst’s first solo exhibition in London and followed his experimentation with insects, interest shifting here from flies to tropical butterflies. The show was originally installed on two floors of a vacant shop and it is at Tate reconfigured on one level. In the first room canvases present dead butterflies embedded into monochromatic fields of viscous household gloss-paint, fulfilling a static aesthetic role. This forms the base for his iconic “butterfly paintings” which would be later produced in series. The second room contains flowers, bowls of sugar-water and white canvases with pupae attached to them from which exotic butterflies hatch, mate, lay eggs and die in a cyclical rehearsal of biological functions. In and Out of Love brings living creatures in physical contact with the traditional representational plane onto which they were once only depicted: the canvas. From this angle the work mainly appears to comment on the postmodernist dislike for representation in art, reassessing, in a rather dramatic way, its privileging for the real. Unlike in A Thousand Years, the killing does not happen in the gallery space, but it is implied by the simultaneous presence of live fluttering butterflies and those stuck to the canvasses. The encounter with these butterflies, one of the most culturally celebrated insects, is different from the traditional pinned encounter provided by the entomology cabinet. These circumstances remind us that this killing is institutionalised, but that it is so in an opposite way to that of flies. The killing of butterflies aims at preserving the body in its perfect beauty, whilst the killing of flies aims at disintegrating the body as source of disgust. Viewers queue for up to thirty minutes in order to enter this room.
More work with butterflies is visible in room eleven, where some of Hirst’s most eye-catchy “butterfly-wing paintings” are exhibited. The series counts a number of differently sized and shaped canvases on which butterfly wings from a multitude of tropical species have been detached from the bodies of the insects and arranged to suggest the a stained glass window. All of Hirst’s compositional arrangements present levels of entropic harmony structured around symmetrically repeated geometrical patterning. What at first appears to be chaotic and random, quickly reveals itself as perfectly ordered and speculatively self-referenced within itself. These are images in which the symbolic tensions between life and death explored in the still life genre have been exasperated.
The exploration of life and death through animal-dissection continues through the exhibition. As one would expect, the famous Mother and Child Divided is also here. The piece comprises of a bi-parted display of a cow and calf, both sawn in two symmetrical halves cut length-wise and placed in four glass cases. In splitting each animal, the cases allow just enough space for a person to walk in between, so to visually pass through the animal. Of course the encounter with severed cows in the gallery space is bound to provoke strong emotional responses, however it is the friction between the attraction and revulsion generated by the display that makes the work worthy of attention. Here the temptation to walk between the two halves is undeniable, so much that gallery visitors spontaneously form an orderly queue at one end of the piece in order to experience the spectacle of the open animal carcass. From that perspective, from the inside, the animal presents its complex network of organs, one that simultaneously seems here to function as a piece of abstract beauty whilst reminding us of the undeniable biological similarities we share with animals. In the formaldehyde vitrine, the animal itself becomes a kind of diorama, displaying an unfamiliar hidden world that has been brought into the museum and put on display for visitors to see. This far-off environment is imported from the killing factory of the meat processing plant, and its geography needs not be recreated through models and diorama paintings, but through mere stripping away of the concealing layers of skin and bone that hide the landscape inside. At once, like at the slaughterhouse tours of late 1800, the viewer is caught in an overpowering spectacle triggered by the anatomical overlapping between animal and human that meat so clearly suggests through its material presence. However there is more to the work as Mother and Child Divided reminds of the closeness between us and animals whilst performatively alluding to the brutal separations of ‘mother and child’ that are at the core of the meat industry’s day-to-day operations. This work indeed is a questioning entity. What is this urgency of seeing we experience in front of it? What do we expect to see? And what do we effectively happen to see instead?
It is not only animals that grab attention in this busy show. Cigarettes become a clear haunting presence. This is surely not a good show for those whom have just kicked the habit. Hirst, who was a heavy smoker himself until recently, saw cigarettes as segments of life and cigarette butts as the remains or memories of such segments. In burning for the three to five minutes they usually take, each smoked cigarette captures a unique and unrepeatable moment in a person’s life; a conversation, the page of a book, the writing of a letter, a phone call... They represent the passing of time and with that the passing of life. They offer an unlikely opportunity to celebrate the everyday irrelevance of random and seemingly meaningless moments. Crematorium, possibly the largest ashtray in the world, functions here as a postmodern memento mori, one that does without the traditional symbolisms of flowers and skulls in order to repel the viewer with a disconcerting image and the pungent smell of “smoked away life”.
Up until this stage it is difficult to deny that as far as a pop art shows could go, this is a great one. It is glossy, shiny, bold, colourful and arrogant in an accessible way. Things begin to plod along a little, however, with the overindulgent and self celebratory room dedicated to his historical 2008 Sotheby’s triumph in which the artist sold 244 new works all substantially consisting of revised versions of his previous iconic productions. Famously, the artist cashed in £111.000.000 just the day before banks went into meltdown. This room is the apotheosis of Hirst’s personal artistic mythology. Everything is gold and platinum plated; the walls are covered in wallpaper reproducing the catalogue image of Judgment Day, a gold cabinet filled with 30.000 manufactured diamonds. There is gold and precious stones everywhere you look—maybe a little too much of it? However, aside from commemorating the event, the room does not add anything new to the art on show and if anything, it dilutes the pre-existing body of work by reproducing it in blinged-out versions for the super-rich. Right past this bath of gold is a diminuitive white room in which a dove hovers suspended in a formaldehyde cabinet. Behind it is Remembrance, a white-on-white spot painting from 2009. Following the gold extravaganza of the previous room, this last closing chapter proposes an ambiguous ending to a dramatic show. Is the dove symbolizing the holy ghost, hope, peace? Each plausible meaning seem a little hollow and washed out, as the gold overdose of the previous room has overwhelmed creative thought.
But if excess is what one is looking for, downstairs in the Turbine Hall, the famous For the Love of God (2007), the diamond incrusted skull worth £50.000.000 sits in a purpose built black room guarded by security. This possibly is one of the most disconcerting artworks of all time. The enmeshing of values, from that of human life to monetary, natural and craft, the skull belongs to that category of objects one can barely get to grips in terms of value. How else would you visualize £50.000.000?
Overall, the show (never it has been more appropriate to use this term for an art exhibition) is dazzling, sleek, lavish and full of iconic statements. However the curatorial choice has for some reason shrunk Hirst’s body of work to a few ideas that seemingly have been explored and “expanded” over and over again during the past twenty years. A lot is missing and too many pharmaceutical cabinets and cigarette butts are on show, along with too many of the infamous spot paintings which are most responsible for Hirst’s wealth. Although adopting the production-line approach to art- making is crucial to Hirst’s aesthetics and conceptual framework, the viewer’s eye becomes quickly immune to the irreverent power these objects originally exuded. The hang also reveals that most of Hirst’s best ideas emerged in the early 90s and were ever since “expanded” or revised. Producing some sterling new work to implement in the show would have seemed an obvious preoccupation, but the way it stands, this is mainly designed as a celebratory retrospective rather than a place where new ideas emerge from the old. This is a greatest hits CD without the new bonus tracks at the end. Most surprisingly, none of the infamous “blue paintings” series from 2009 is included. This is a major fault in the exhibition for it suggests that Hirst has, in agreement with the critics whom ravaged the series, decided to forget that chapter of his artistic career for good. In her interviews Madonna claims to never read the reviews of her music and films (good for her!). Whether she does read them and then weeps for weeks as a result or whether she does not indeed give a damn about what her critics say, that is the attitude we want pop stars to have. A brazen refusal to budge down and admit their work has not quite made the grade just because a bunch of critics thinks so. We want them to be above it all, suspended in the pop world of non-sense they have created for themselves and their admirers. What the show ultimately rally unwittingly points the finger at is that Damien now needs to find some new ideas or some radical new ideas on how to convey his old ones. To be the richest living artist in the world may be a very strange position to be in and believing in your personal creative abilities whilst one of your burps at any restaurant could easily fetch £30.000 must be even stranger. However, that doesn’t mean it’s all over just yet—the shark may still be alive, hanging in there…
Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer of Art History and Media Studies and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the online Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. He also lectures at Tate Modern and Tate on the subject of the galleries' collections. His main research areas involve modern and contemporary art with a strong interest for the representation/presence of animals in the exhibiting space.