Sharks, livestock, butterflies and black flies, oh my! This range of mostly dead animals is usually found in a natural history museum, but in this case, its Damien Hirst’s first major retrospective currently on view at London’s Tate Modern.
Spanning the 1980s to present day, works include live butterflies, a faux pharmacy, dizzying paintings and animals suspended in formaldehyde alongside a mega-sized ashtray full of old cigarettes and a beach ball dancing in the air. The array of works, slightly resembling the attractions encountered at a low-budget carnival, cohesively conveys a sense of folly rather than ‘high art’. But somehow, despite the seemingly tongue-in-cheek spirit, there’s a sense that this is not all fun and games.
The selection of works on display is carefully considered. Though themes are repetitious, individual works demonstrate Hirst’s evolving style. For instance, the show begins and ends with Hirst’s signature Dot Paintings tracing their evolution from colourful, hand-painted canvases with irregularly shaped circles to the more ostentatious monochrome, gold-leaf infused canvas on view in the final gallery. The same goes for the butterfly paintings, which progress from scattered displays of dead butterflies against colourful enamel backgrounds to butterfly motifs dancing atop bejewelled gold and silver backgrounds.
More importantly, the titles and subjects of the works hone in on Hirst’s interest in life/death, science/religion and complacency/transformation inviting visitors to consider the ‘seriousness’ of his work. By highlighting the more successful/controversial works such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (stuffed shark) and A Thousand Years (rotting cow’s head & black flies) and excluding recent paintings such as The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth series of 2008-9, the curators present a compelling case, but will visitors fall for it?
“In an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time,” says Hirst. The show ends on exactly that note with works from the infamous Sotheby’s auction, for which Hirst circumvented his dealer to negotiate directly with the auction house, resulting in a profit in excess of £100m. Remembrance (2008), the white-on-white gold leaf dot painting, and The Incomplete Truth (2006), a dove with wings spread, suspended in formaldehyde, convey a mixed message. On one hand, there’s a symbol of peace, purity and religion; on the other, the incredible money-making machine that is Damien Hirst.
The latter reaches its full potential in the Turbine Hall which is the site of house-of-horror style viewings of For the Love of God, Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull encased in a glass cube atop a plinth in the centre of a pitch black room. Just fifteen visitors are permitted inside at a time and even then it’s difficult to avoid stepping on one another’s toes as the crowd gathers around the shining vision.
Hirst’s mega-media presence not only overshadows his work but almost mocks it, his ability to happily exploit himself pisses off a lot of people, his Bono-style specs should probably be smacked off his face, but is there another side to Damien Hirst? Should we be taking him a bit more seriously with regard to his contribution to the rhetoric of art history?
Art critic Julian Spalding certainly doesn’t think so. In his new book, Con Art – Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can, Spalding belligerently argues, “Hirst should not be in the Tate. He’s not an artist.” Spalding continues, “… [the shark] is not only not worth the $12m… paid for it, it isn’t worth a cent, not because it isn’t great art, good art or even bad art, but because it isn’t art at all.”
It is worth noting that Spalding loathes conceptual art in general, thus Hirst is not his only target. Nevertheless, attempting to declare what is and isn’t art is not only a much bigger argument but it is one that is incessant and ever-changing. If we consider financial statistics as an indication of artistic merit, data from Art Market Research reported by the Financial Times indicates that the value of Hirst’s works are in serious decline at the moment. Then again, collecting contemporary art has always been risky and buyers will always feel safer investing in the Old Masters, especially during hard economic times.
Based on Hirst’s track record, when the proverbial shark decomposes, he’ll just create a new one.
Check out Damien Hist: Thoughts, Work, Life on 4oD.
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