Tate Modern, London
|If you don't understand Damien Hirst, Don't worry... It's Conceptual.|
To begin my review of Damien Hirst’s first major retrospective exhibition in the U.K, I would like to draw your attention to that wonderful Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The juicy tale of 18th century deception and arrogance is painfully relevant when trawling the grandiose rooms of the Tate Modern at the opening of the controversial, Young British Artist's huge collection of work. Often derided as "a great pretender" and criticised for having a limited scope and essentially manipulating the Art Industry to his advantage, conning the system and indulging the elite, Hirst recently helmed his own auction, selling an entire collection for upwards of £111 Million and somewhat confirming assumptions that he isn't a particularly convincing artist but that he is instead promoting the idea of art as a product. At last count, Hirst is reputedly worth more than £200 Million and his often outspoken opinions tend to reach headlines quicker than his artistic achievements, recently his strange admiration for the perpetrators of the 9/11terrorist attack earned him considerable criticism, ultimately forcing him to apologise for saying to the BBC about the terrorists, "You've got to hand it to them, really... on one level they need congratulating." However, regardless of his media battles, his actual Artwork often comes under heavy criticism from critics and journalists alike and it's with this in mind that I prepared to join the masses of fascinated visitors, biting the bullet and entering the comic and macabre world of Damien Hirst.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that this was not an exhibition that would silence my criticisms and as much as I wanted to have presumptuously underrated Hirst's understanding of Painting, Sculpture, Installation and Conceptual Art, the results of the Tate Modern's considerable collection did nothing to appease my cynicism.
Of course, attempting to create something interesting out of Hirst’s astonishingly limited body of work was always going to be a thankless task for the Tate and the job of curating it is for the most part capably handled, each room designed to portray a specific movement in Hirst’s career, beginning with his early works, sloppily painted attempts at “Spot-paintings,” a photograph of a young Damien Hirst with a dismembered cadaver and a strange contraption that keeps a ping-pong ball aloft using bursts of air. The second room primarily consists of more large, colourful spots, cabinets of pristinely arranged tablets and the occasional vitrine featuring the life-cycle of flys or a formaldehyde sheep. The fourth room continues in this vein, introducing the familiar use of cigarettes as a metaphor for death (of course) and showcasing more spliced animals in vitrines.
One of the most obvious difficulties in presenting a retrospective of Hirst’s work is the fact that these works have been so over-publicised, every new piece greeted with such controversy and criticism, that inevitably nothing about the exhibition feels fresh or original. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these works are mostly stagnant (literally,) overly-familiar, meagrely-skilled mock-ups of other Artist’s ideas, like the series of paintings behind glass, in the fifth room, which is supposedly a reference to Francis Bacon’s use of glass as an additionally reflective element reinforcing the exhibition process, which in itself was hardly a novel idea. It becomes increasingly obvious as you peruse the exhibits, that these works no longer hold any value beyond that of the financial, a cruel reminder of Hirst’s inability to engage effectively with anything other than elitist auction houses that gobble up his preposterous efforts greedily, grossly over-valuing his work and consequently widening the gap between elitist and accessible contemporary art.
Without a doubt, there are fleeting moments of satisfaction, the obviously highly publicised use of live butterflies in the site-specific installation In And Out Of Love explores the little creatures short lives as a fairly obvious metaphor for the fragility of life, breaking deliciously from various pupae around the muggy sixth room, the site of meandering exotic butterflies uncharacteristically engages with the audience and effectively symbolises the cycle of life and the beauty of nature trapped in an undulating flow of mortality, while the seventh room, entitled Pharmacy transforms the gallery into a sterile environment, the walls lined with huge cabinets packed with mass-produced medication, bleak and overbearing, it nicely illustrates the desperate human tendency to prolong life in the face of impending doom. Of course the irony of mass-produced placebos as a metaphor for the futile struggle to outlive our natural life-span as depicted by the most lingering of Artists goes largely unnoticed, which when considering the general lack of irony in Hirst’s work, should be largely unsurprising. The fact that Hirst always maintained that exhibitions at the Tate were only for "dead artists" is, in hindsight, a fittingly self-fullfilling prophecy rife with the kind of irony that would soar over Hirst's head like a butterfly on a bid for freedom.
|The Inescapable Truth|
To come full circle and return to The Emperor's New Clothes, that wonderful tale of 18th century swindlers genially leading an arrogant king to his social demise, one is inexorably reminded of the contrasting responses from the King’s loyal subjects to said swindlers handiwork, everyone but the child remained silent, perpetuating the great king’s unfounded self-belief and reinforcing the lies his supposedly trusted tailors had peddled. And as the self-professed ‘Bad Boy of Modern Art,’ Damien Hirst is surely one of Art’s greatest con-men, peddling his smug observations and sub-par talents as if he wields some kind of cosmic, awe-inspiring wisdom, essentially clothing his art in a cloak of invisible bullshit that appears to effectively blind the star-struck, celebrity obsessed masses to it’s utter hollow pointlessness. And yet, as Hans Christian Anderson inferred, responsibility cannot be pinned only on the swindler, but also falls on us as his audience, a crowd of observant subjects, loyal to the concept of Art and beholden to the freedom and diversity of the Artist but too outspoken to voice our concerns over the increasing madness unfolding before us.
If you weren’t unsettled by the obviously tacky regurgitation of one very tired theme or disheartened by the overtly commercial outlook of absolutely everything on show, then you are possibly about as alive as a disemboweled cow, split in half and stored in a glass case of formaldehyde (Mother and Child Divided -incidentally.) All this is uncomfortably reinforced by the fact that unusually but not unexpectedly Hirst has created within the actual exhibition his own personal financial alter, filling the penultimate gallery-room with all manner of Hirst-related merchandise, including “Skull T-Shirts” and “Make-it-yourself” Spin/Spot-Painting sets. The popularity of this bleakly oppressive room, ceremoniously separated from the general Gallery shop downstairs (which incidentally also stocks the entire Hirst range, should you have missed it the first time around) only proves to reiterate the stark contrast between the types of Gallery visitors that flood to these sensationalised events, those that queue and claw their way to the nearest “Do-It-Yourself Spin-Painting Set,” gasping in awe at the sheer audacity of a diamond encrusted skull and nodding approvingly at the supposed profundity of a room packed floor to ceiling with artificially manufactured diamonds and then the rest of us shuffling towards the exit briskly, attempting to differentiate between the final few rooms of the exhibition or trying to remember what was actually in the first room, last seen all those hours ago, raising our eyes cynically to the heavens as we pass yet another formaldehyde-stored corpse, typically positioned to evoke, or more likely mock Christian symbolism, frozen, as always, in the last moments of death, we cast one last despairing glance back at the absurdly self-aggrandising nature of the whole thing, and leave, muttering under our breath… “The Emperor has no clothes…”
(‘Damien Hirst’ runs until the 9th September)