Jill Glenn joined just about every art critic in the western hemisphere at one of the best attended press previews she’s ever been to: Damien Hirst at Tate Modern – and found herself, despite the swell of apparent enthusiasm around her, privately wondering…
Finally, a retrospective, said Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern. This is not the first time that Damien Hirst has been exhibited at Tate Modern (nor, for certain, will it be the last), but it is the first substantial survey of his work to be held here or anywhere in the UK, and brings together key pieces from 20+ years of art, anarchy and money-making. It has been, in Dercon’s words, ‘carefully planned and incredibly carefully edited’ by curator Ann Gallagher, who has known Hirst since 1989, and was several years in the planning. Hirst himself has been thoroughly involved (‘a collaborative approach’) – and so whatever you think at the end of it you can be sure that that’s what the artist wants you to think. But perhaps that’s what art is always about, the artist pulling the wool of illusion over the viewers’ eyes.
If sheep in formaldehyde are the first thing that spring to mind when you think of Damien Hirst, then you’re probably not alone. Equally, if sheep in formaldehyde are not to your taste, then you might think that he has nothing to offer. I declare myself to have been largely unfamiliar with the rest of his work until now, so an exhibition like this is an ideal introduction.
The early rooms show his first attempts at many of the themes that would come to preoccupy him throughout his career. They are, in essence, the shape of things to come, and it’s not difficult to appreciate their innovatory quality. Sinner, for example, is the most personal (or most avowedly personal) of a series of pharmaceutical cabinets; in this, made in 1988, he presents his grandmother’s medicines – her own personal prescriptions – whereas later he uses pristine packaging. They are, we are given to understand in the accompanying handout, an oblique way of visualising the body, with each of the medications relating to a different ailment, and by extension to a specific organ or part of the body; it’s interesting, therefore, to see that the packaging described as ‘pristine’ actually looks dated now… the artwork has aged just like the bodies to which it refers.
In the large installation – Pharmacy 1992 (the title, for once, gives the content away) – I was struck by the regularity of form and order that underpins so much of Damien Hirst’s work. The marshalling of ‘ingredients’ such as pharmaceutical packaging, as here; the controlling of emotions. And there is, of course, a tension between this and the impermanence of other pieces of his work, such as Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless etc, a disc of kaleidoscope colours, constatnly spinning so that your perception is uniquely yours and uniquely now. Whereas in the Spot Paintings (of which more later) Hirst was trying to control colour, here he seems to be allowing it its own range.
Much of his work is displayed in cabinets, wall-mounted or free-standing. The presentation made me think of nineteenth century cabinet collections of birds eggs or butterflies: pinned down and classified. These are not so formalised – the contents speak for themselves in conjunction with their titles – but there is a connection of methodology nevertheless. Locating the titles isn’t always easy; often they are several metres away, which keeps you on your toes. Hunt them down, though, for they are often crucial to pointing you to an understanding of the work; a collection of cigarettes and cigars in a glass and stainless steel cabinet is made clever by its title: The Abyss (2008).
There is plenty of formaldehyde – of course – with preserved sharks, cows, sheep and doves in all their glory. In Room 13, for example, we find The Kingdom, a tiger shark in formaldehyde which sold for £9.6m at Sotheby’s in 2008, when Hirst broke with tradition and took a collection of works straight to auction, bypassing the traditional dealer/gallery route. The different viewing angles (it’s located centrally in a semi-darkened room) create some strange illusions; the walls of the case appear to bend, as does the shark itself. It’s a great metaphor for how art makes you look differently at the things you think you know.
In Room 11 there are pieces so far removed from the formaldehyde works that it’s astonishing to believe that they came from the same imagination. Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II (2006), ‘butterflies and household gloss on canvas’, is utterly beautiful with its ivories and greys, its muted shades of cream, its teal blue. The intense iridescence of the butterflies, reminiscent of stained glass, confers an almost religious intensity. Beauty may not be the purpose of art, but it’s nice to see it sometimes. And such detail.
Butterflies (dead or alive) are, in fact, another of Hirst’s obsessions. By this stage of the exhibition we’ve already been through the installation In and Out of Love (1991), shown in its entirety for the first time since its creation. It includes a humid room lined with white canvases on which pupae are embedded; the butterflies which hatch from these fly freely around, feeding on plants and sugar water and fulfilling a ‘natural’ life cycle. I was amused to note that the Tate is keen to flag up that all butterflies were reputably sourced, selected from appropriate varieties, are carefully monitored etc etc. You might think it’s little different from the new Butterfly House at Jimmy’s Farm; I couldn’t possibly comment. It set me questioning myself further though: more ‘but is it art?’
It certainly genereated powerful reactions, including anxiety from several ‘participants’ who left, swiftly. As for me, I recognised several of the varieties, including the beautiful blue morpho, and was frustrated at not knowing the others – possibly not the reaction for which Hirst was aiming. They were splendid, though: their glorious colours, their translucent wings. The life cycle: very moving. Art with a life of its own. A ‘motif for the inherent fragility of life…’
I tried to be open to themes and interpretations; to approach each piece on its own merits and to seek to expand my understanding… but I do have to admit that 11 Sausages 1993 (‘acrylic, silicone, monofilament, stainless steel, sausages and formaldehyde solution’) did just make me want to ask ‘Why?’… (…and not wait for an answer).
Despite – or perhaps because of – his general preoccupations (pickled agricultural animals, spots, butterflies, pharmaceutical packaging and cabinetry) he still has the capacity to surprise. In Room 13, Midas and the Infinite could be subtitled ‘Damien Hirst does bling’, for example: butterflies, cubic zirconia and enamel paint on canvas create a piece as startling as its ingredients imply – and as far removed from sausages as you could get.
For no readily apparent reason, I always expect contemporary art to have energy. I imagine the man himself to have plenty, but the work itself is generally more thoughtful, more measured than I’d expected: contemplative as well as contemporary. Life and death (‘the biggest polar opposites there are’, according to Hirst) are the big themes here; not only how they co-exist, but how we negotiate with the inevitability of death. There’s the conflict and inter-relationship of science and religion, and the managing of belief systems…
…and, or perhaps I’m being cynical, the making of money. Hirst is reported to be ‘Britain’s richest living artist’ or ‘the world’s wealthiest living artist’, so clearly there’s a lot of people who’ve bought into the conspiracy of conceptual art, if conspiracy it is. Maybe Hirst is wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes, but, to extend a metaphor, there are a lot of people who want to wear them too. Hirst has a smart commercial brain (as the wacky range of themed gifts and accessories in the Tate Shop bears witness). Find something that works, and develop it… replicate it… recreate it…
From Room 1 the exhibition is scattered with the ‘Spot Paintings’ that have been a leitmotif throughout his career. In a wide range of sizes and dimensions they are precisely laid out and painted (four coats of rich household gloss, apparently) and surprisingly pleasing to look at, even while you’re scratching your head and wondering what they’re doing there and why they have names from a chemist’s catalogue, such as Methoxyverapamil or Anthraquinone or Iodomethane-13C. They were generated out of his desire to manage colour; to find, as he puts it, ‘a structure where I could lay [colour] down, be in control of it rather than it controlling me.’ Once you know this, they become somehow more acceptable, as if their purpose legitimises them, but the critic inside my head was already prodding: If you have to know what the artist’s intentions were before you can appreciate a work, is that good enough? Shouldn’t art stand on its own?
Yes, and no, I concluded in due course. You can look at Hirst’s work and bring your own meaning – and that’s perfectly valid, in my opinion. Or you can read the informative, explanatory room notes, which direct your understanding, pointing to what he is saying, or what he says he’s saying. And then when you do ‘understand’, you’ve had an artistic or intellectual experience that you wouldn’t have had without that input and guidance. Does that make it less valid? For me, no. It’s about moving art forward, moving yourself forward, building new neurons in your brain. The fact that the Spot Paintings (of which there hundreds exist) are no longer actually produced by Hirst himself but by a team of assistants is an entirely different matter. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be ‘is it art?’ but rather, ‘is it Hirst?’. And then: does it matter? If it came out of Hirst’s head, but not necessarily his hand, is it less authentic?
Are the pieces in this retrospective really art? Yes, I think so. Are they the sort of art I’d want to live with and look at on a daily basis? Generally not. These are a more immediate, more cerebral artistic experience, one that plays with your head, and perfectly illustrates Hirst’s own observation of his creative intent: ‘In an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time…’. Thanks, Damien.
Damien Hirst continues at Tate Modern until 9 September;
see www.tate.org.uk or call 020 7887 8888