Wednesday 4 April 2012

Art-iculate: Damien Hirst (the retrospective)

Today is a special day on the British art calendar. The long awaited first major ‘survey’ of YBA Damien Hirst’s work in the UK is about to open at Tate Modern. Featuring over 70 seminal works, Damien Hirst (the retrospective) pulls together the controversial artist’s most recognisable works in an exhibition that forms part of the Cultural Olympiad.

In many ways flying the flag for British art over the past 25 years, love him or loathe him, Hirst embodies a space in time, much like a musician of the ‘90s, when boundaries were there to be broken by the young modernizers, critics were at the whim of shock and awe tactics and gallerists and collectors were falling all over themselves for a piece of ‘it’.

One of the most notorious artists of modern time, a lot has been written about Hirst: if you Google his name you’ll find an astonishing 23,900,000 entries as of (10 am) this morning. Most recently, curator Julian Spalding spoke of his work as being ‘worthless’, encouraging owners to ‘sell before the market realises’ it holds no value. Whether this admonishment, a mere week before the most important exhibition of Hirst’s life opens, falls into the category of ‘all publicity is good publicity’, or is simply an unmasked scathing attack to be taken at face value, remains to be seen. What will indubitably be decided is whether the British public happen to agree.

Generally speaking, when Damien Hirst’s name crops up in a conversation, in a pub per se, on the whole the response is rather tepid, with many lamenting and admonishing, saying they do not understand his work, or worse still that these is no substance behind his ‘brand’ of art. It seems that in spite of Hirst’s long and accomplished career to date, being widely regarded as the most successful contemporary artist of his generation, he is yet to win over the hearts and minds of the ‘average Joe’.

I am an ardent fan of Hirst for three reasons. Firstly, his thought processes are genius (naysayers should delve a little deeper at the inquisitiveness behind the persona, which is in essence what propels all artists to ‘create’). Secondly, Hirst’s ability to build a brand synonymous with polka dots and create an artistic legacy deserves some credit. Lastly, I, on the whole, like to be shocked from time to time, and to feel as though the art world has advanced rather than stagnated at a crossroads of passivity and insipidity.

I feel that Hirst pushes the buttons that at times keeps the mechanism of modern art moving, with the millions of column inches dedicated to the artist providing the oil to keep, perhaps one of our most overlooked of British exports, modern art, ticking over.

Opening with work Hirst created while studying for his BA at Goldsmith’s College, Damien Hirst (the retrospective) starts, for all intents and purposes, at the very beginning. Like any great back-catalogue, it is with awe that you can walk through a series of rooms chronicling the career highs and lows of someone’s life so astutely, and Hirst’s life’s work spanning almost a quarter of a century is no exception.

As visitors enter the exhibition they’re met with several works dating back to Freeze, the exhibition Hirst conceived and curated while studying in 1988, famously attended by Charles Saatchi.

With Dead Head, 1991

When looking at Hirst’s work through the years it is easy to surmise that a clear rhyme to the artist’s work is morbid curiosity and the transient nature of life, giving voice to prevalent dualities. It is this very curiosity depicted in the 1991 image With Dead Head that so early on informed the best part of a life’s work. In this photograph we see the artist as a teenager posing with a specimen from the anatomy department of Leeds University, where the inspiration for much of his work derives.

In the group of works that can be described as ‘The Natural History’ series: pickled sheep, cows and doves, the butterflies, the flies or the fish (arranged on shelves and appear to be floating within their final resting place), Hirst likes to experiment with death and extinction, at times applying these basic lessons of life to the inanimate object, displaying them as specimens; shells, glasses, surgical equipment and, most notably and recurrently, cigarettes.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 (Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012)
With cigarettes Hirst can go deeper. Preserving and suspending a shark in formaldehyde for the 1991 work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was groundbreaking and original, however it was and always will be a literal representation of an idea, perfectly capitulating to his museological and scientific interests.

Wanting to engage the viewer’s primal fear, when developing the idea for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living Hirst thought to himself, ‘if I can get one in a big enough space, actually in liquid, big enough to frighten you, you will feel like you’re in there with it, feel that it could eat you’, which works on many levels.

In Crematorium, 1996, Hirst constructed a giant disproportionate fibreglass ashtray (large enough to be a super Jacuzzi), and filled it with a lifetime’s accumulation of cigarettes. Ash is used as a powerful metaphor for human remains, and signifies the very end, creating a contemporary ‘memento mori’ which is a stark reminder of the inevitability and finality of death.

Earlier in 1991, Hirst produced many cigarette inspired works such as The Acquired Inability to Escape and In and Out of Love, which effectively preserve the inane in life and examine the possibility that extinguishing a cigarette can be much like the extinction of a species.

In Dead Ends Died Out, Examined, 1993 Hirst presents cigarette butts lined along the shelves of a cabinet. By cataloguing and displaying discarded cigarettes as he would later go on to do with fish and butterflies (and much later diamonds), Hirst is preserving his artefacts and subjects much like a historian would for a history exhibit.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992 (Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012)
Pharmacy, 1992 is yet another seminal work that plays into this theme. Meticulously collecting and arranging thousands of boxes and jars, Hirst’s Pharmacy resembles an old apothecary and is probably better stocked than my local chemist: I’ve always wondered if real out-of-date drugs are concealed within the respective jars, sealed within this vast display for eternity.

In the first medicine cabinet he created, Sinner, 1988 Hirst incorporated the personal prescriptions of his deceased grandmother. The resulting cabinets inspired by this early work represent an oblique way of visualising the body, with each of the medicines in view signifying different ailments, making the viewer think of particular organs and parts of the body.

Damien Hirst, Lullaby, the Seasons, 2002 [detail] (© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates)
Next up in 1994 came Doubt and Still which displayed iconography of medical science beyond the pharmaceutical. A collection of stainless steel, nickel and brass instruments, displayed in towering stainless steel cabinets; essentially these works simply display a long list of equipment one would find in an operating theatre suggesting a sterility, while insinuated undercurrents of the invasive procedures that oversized scissors, pincers, pliers, hand-saws and Vernier gauges are used for bubble in the background.

A theme later revisited in 2006’s Lapdancer and the 2009 work Invasion, it is the ingenuity of 2000’s Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology that is the crowning glory of this series. Deftly bringing together three branches of medicine in resonance of the Holy Trinity, Hirst draws parallels between science and religion throughout his career’s work, but perhaps never as directly as this. Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology directly examines the core values and belief systems of both religion and science, whilst highlighting the conflicts, through a display of medical teaching objects and demonstration aids.

In 2005, Hirst said of Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology; “There [are] four important things in life: religion, life, art and science. At their best, they’re all tools to help you find a path through the darkness. None of them really work that well… Of them all science seems to be the one… like religion it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end…”

Evident in many of Hirst work’s which are preserved behind glass, is the inspiration of Francis Bacon. Hirst says: “Bacon’s like: ‘It’s a doorway, it’s a window, it’s two dimensional, it’s three dimensional, he’s thinking about the glass reflecting’”.

A Thousand Years made in 1990 is the first of Hirst’s works where an arrangement of components are enclosed within a glass vitrine. Within its confines the entire lifecycle, of which Hirst has a vested interest, is played out for the viewer in a combination of beauty and horror. Maggots hatch inside a minimal white box, develop into flies, then feed on a severed cow’s head, which is been placed on the floor of the vitrine.

Those unfamiliar with the work may not at first understand what it is. On first inspection all you see is the hundreds, if not thousands, of flies flying around their enclosure. In another section of the vitrine lies an insect-o-cutor, which prematurely ends the lives of many flies, while the rest are spared to complete the life cycle and keep the installation alive.

This work is pivotal in the progression of Hirst’s later works and thought processes as it is the first instance where he attempts to recreate the enactment of birth, death and decay. Of this work Hirst says: “It was the first time I had ever made something that had a life of its own… something that I had no control over.”

Juxtaposed in with the more macabre and sombre works are the more playful works such as Loving in a world of Desire, 1996 which comprises a giant beach ball hovering above a coloured box. Suspended above a jet of air, the sphere flutters over the structure in an interplay of precariousness and balance. This is perhaps one of the few works in Damien Hirst (the retrospective), that shows Hirst’s light-hearted approach and utilises elements of physics more than chemistry and biology.

Among his most recognisable works are the 'Spot Paintings' which emerged from Hirst’s attempts to find ‘a structure where I could lay [colour] down, be in control of it, rather than it controlling me’. What is perhaps most interesting about these works that appear so simple on the surface is the scientific approach Hirst applies to everything, including painting: each spot is painted a different colour, is a uniform size – equal to the size of the spaces between each dot – and is meticulously arranged on a white grid-like structure.

Damien Hirst, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) - installation view, 1991 (Private Collection, courtesy White Cube Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012)
Perhaps the most spectacular work on display is the 1991 installation, In and Out of Love, reconstructed for the first time in 21 years. Displayed alongside the monochrome canvases adorned with dead butterflies and overflowing ashtrays, in an adjacent room visitors are invited into a semi-sealed humid environment. Large white canvases adorn the walls and are embedded with pupae. Butterflies hatch from the ‘paintings’ and are left to fly freely around the room feeding on sugar water and flowers, mating and laying eggs in Hirst’s most ambitious and interactive installation to date. Whilst undeniably beautiful, I didn’t linger.

What is great about this exhibition is the concentration on the early half of Hirst’s career, delving deep into the creative genius that, whilst controversial, is unlike any other practising artist in the UK. What is apparent when following the exhibition path laid out in the guide, is the lack of impact the most recent works have, coming across in the most extreme cases as a tad gimmicky and perhaps not progressive enough (Judgement Day, 2009; Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2007 and For the Love of God, 2007).

Damien Hirst, Sympathy in White Major - Absolution II, 2006 [Detail] (© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates)
Some latter works, however, such as 2007’s Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven inspire. In this beautiful and fragile triptych butterflies are arranged into complex patterns reminiscent of medieval stained glass church windows, affixed to arch shaped canvases.

2004’s Black Sun is mesmerising and repulsive all at once. With a surface densely covered in clusters of dead flies, Black Sun provides a dark contrast to the beauty of the butterfly paintings, perhaps one of Hirst’s most sombre and repulsive literal representations of death and decay.

The final exhibit The Incomplete Truth, 2006 is serene in its simplicity; a dove is suspended in formaldehyde as if in mid-flight. Brimming with symbolic associations (a messenger of hope, the bodily form of the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography and a secular symbol of peace), the title is equivocal and perfectly sums up Hirst’s entire body of work – truth resides, not in absolutes, but in dualities and the continual push and pull between polar opposites, with the most obvious example being life and death.

Even if you don’t like Damien Hirst I encourage as many people as possible to see this grand celebration of an exhibition, if only so you can formulate an astute argument next time we meet at the pub!

Damien Hirst (the retrospective) is showing at Tate Modern until 9 September.

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