Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

Filed in Reviews by on April 12, 2012

Damien Hirst
Tate Modern: Exhibition
4 April – 9 September 2012

Away from the Flock 1994 by Damien Hirst born 1965


Maybe I’m just naïve or old fashioned or finicky, or maybe I just have an over developed sense of preciousness about my chosen profession, but I can’t help but feel slightly depressed when I hear an art exhibition described as a “blockbuster”. However, Damien Hirst’s massive survey show running at the Tate Modern this summer (and neatly coinciding with the Olympics) is just that.

Hirst is Britain’s most well known living artist, be it for his art or bank balance, he’s a household name and a sure fire way of getting bums on seats. His exhibitions always feel a little bit like a visit to McDonalds; you know it’s not the best thing you could be eating, but you also know that it’s popular for a reason.

This is the most substantial survey of Hirst’s work that has ever been showcased in London. It’s all here; the dead animals and live butterflies, the pharmaceutical drugs and the cigarette butts, the diamonds and the spots. Lots and lots of the spots. The problem I always have with the Tate is that it doesn’t really feel like a normal art gallery. It’s too big and palatial, it feels educational, it’s museumy; somewhere for school trips and tourist groups. The work of even the most exciting artist will be murdered in it’s grandiose rooms, strangled to death by it’s didactic and chronological curation. And though much of Hirst’s work would feel at home in a natural history museum, his work is no exception.

My first impression as I enter the exhibition is that everything is instantly familiar. I’ve been to many (many, many) retrospectives in the Tate and generally the first two rooms showcasing the artists’ earliest works deliver a few surprises, there is an enjoyable sense of joining the dots (no pun intended), of being able to chart the themes in an artist’s career. This is not the case with Hirst, as we all know, Hirst was pretty famous before he even left art school and it’s his early work which I feel will stand the test of time.

We meet his masterpiece A Thousand Years (1990) in just the second room. It’s a viscous piece of work; a huge vitrine divided down the middle, in one side flies are born from a white cube; in the other side they die. A rotting cow head lying in a pool of congealing blood lures the flies from the safety of their semi-sealed universe to the next through holes cut into the glass. In their rush to feed they may not notice the strategically placed insect-o-cuter and meet a grisly end. It’s a dark and compelling piece of work. It is as beautiful as it is gruesome. The glass becomes dirtier and dirtier, the layer of dead flies grows, the artwork becomes a large, unpleasant egg timer.

Hirst has always said that his work deals with death, a line that you wouldn’t get away with in a second year art school tutorial. All art is about death. Though the vitrines of dead barnyard animals do put us eye to eye with our own mortality, I find myself more moved by his cabinets of neatly categorized cigarette butts; each butt speaking of a moment, of waiting, of time passing. Counting the butts and the minutes spent smoking them, I’m reminded of TS Elliot measuring out his life in spoons of coffee.

Not all of the works on display here work, and there is a noticeable decline in the standard as we reach the last few rooms. The works become deliberately ostentatious, cabinets are filled with diamonds rather than fag butts, spot paintings are now white with gold leaf, we are faced with fabulously expensive materials used to make fabulously expensive artworks. The aim to poke fun at highbrow tastes is obvious, but the work itself is just not visually interesting.

I emerge from the exhibition into a purpose-built Hirstian gift shop with a feeling of disorientation. Usually with a Tate retrospective the rooms build and build, climaxing with the artist’s optimum works. In the case of Hirst there was a sense of going from the sublime to the ridiculous. The exhibition is as spectacular as it is flawed. As I walked away from the Tate I have a weird feeling of nausea mixed with satisfaction. Like I had just eaten a Big Mac.

Tags: ,

Beth Fox

About the Author ()

Beth Fox is an artist, writer and independent curator. She has recently exhibited work at Divus Gallery, London, Sluice, London, Angus-Hughes Gallery, London, the Horse Hospital, London and the Bunkhouse Gallery, Madrid. She was born in Ireland and lives and works in London. More information at: www.beth-fox.com

Comments are closed.