Damien Hirst at Tate Modern 2012. 4 April – 9 September.
I’m feeling positive. I knew that I would be a fan before I set foot in this major retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work – not because I was as knowledgeable about his work as I would have maybe liked, but because I had seen so much coverage of the the exhibition and I still wanted to go. Even so, there were surprises. There was plenty I had not yet seen and I found his work to be engaging in a way that I had not necessarily expected. It reminded me of visits to The Science Museum where one is involved in activities and encouraged to join in. The crossover with science is something that Damien Hirst very much intends and it is found right across his work. This, however, is art. Art because Damien Hirst has intended it to be so, because vast numbers of people are visiting the Tate gallery every day and the gallery is staying open late just so that we can all see what he has created. One of the main things that I noticed upon visiting the exhibition was the level of noise. Not the quiet, reflective mood so often found in galleries, but the distinct sound of chatter. His work provokes reactions and ones that can’t wait until you are outside the gallery.
The exhibitions begins with Damien Hirst’s earliest work, some of which is familiar, but to see it in real life has the added benefit of revealing the unevenness of some of his pieces. ‘Boxes’ 1986 is an example when viewed closely, as is his first spot painting ‘Spot Painting’ 1986. They help to show the progression from art student and the days of ‘Freeze’ to his status today, and glimpses of some of the themes which recur throughout his career.
The scientific element to his work soon becomes clear. Damien Hirst takes a ‘scientific approach to painting’ in his attempt to control colour. In his spot paintings, the spots are a uniform size, precisely the same size as the distance between each spot, and arranged within a precise grid structure on the white canvas. The increasingly scientific names reflect the approach – from “Spot Painting’ and ‘Row’ (1988) to later works ‘Anthraquinone – 1 – Diazonium Chloride’ (1994), and ‘Calciferol’ (1996).
‘A Thousand Years’ (1990) is also in an early part of the exhibition. The first piece by Damien Hirst to be bought by Charles Saatchi, it was also his first major animal installation. The rotting cow’s head, the (unseen) maggots, the flies, the dead flies, all elements that would seem exceptionally unsavoury, and yet inside their vitrine, and under the artist’s label, do not disgust but rather intrigue. I have heard much of the smell, and was only on the receiving end of a small whiff when standing right in front of the vent. I heard many comments from people to this effect, almost disappointed, as if they wanted to smell it. I think we want to know that this is real, to be disgusted by it, otherwise we are admiring something which we would usually consider appalling, and our inability to look away means that modern art has won.
Another thing that struck me in the first 3 rooms is the humour which accompanies some of Damien Hirst’s work, particularly evident in the titles. I had to chuckle at the fish specimens, preserved and mounted on shelves, entitled ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) (1991), and was rather pleased to find that on the other side of the room was ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Right) (1991). I admit that I didn’t see too many people smiling at this, and found myself wanting to point it out. I also took my time looking at ‘Sausages’ (1993) from Hirst’s own collection. A string of sausages suspended in formaldehyde with a description card which made for entertaining reading ‘Acrylic, silicone, manofilament, stainless steel, sausages, formaldehyde solution’. As one of the lesser known pieces it attracts limited attention, but there’s something about the sausages in formaldehyde not creating as much of a fuss as the dead sheep or cows that’s worth noting. Sausages already hide a multitude of things from us, and here I think they may be shielding us from certain realisations regarding what we are prepared to tell ourselves in order to make things palatable. Sausages don’t provoke a reaction.
There are queues within the gallery to look at specific pieces – to walk between ‘Mother and Child (Divided) (2007). A queue that everyone seems willing to participate in to glimpse controversy first hand.
The exhibition moves on to focus on the areas of Damien Hirst’s work inspired by the pharmaceutical industry. ‘Lullaby, the Seasons’ (2002) showcases rows of pills on gleaming shelves in Hirst’s recurring museological fashion. The title refers to the association between songs used to lull children to sleep and the often sleep-inducing effects of pharmaceutical pills. The eye is drawn to the bright colours, the shine, the possibility of recognising a drug that we are familiar with. I heard a girl exclaim ‘That looks like a Nurofen!’ as if she had spotted someone famous nearby. Drugs hold a certain power over us, and Hirst forces us to acknowledges this. Arranging them like the jewels that will come later to show how we prize these elements of modern medicine. It is something that we may be lucky enough to have access to and hold in such high esteem, but for all our faith we must recognise that it can only do so much. Damien Hirst says ‘ You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway.’ It is worth noting that the pills are facsimile, but striking nonetheless.
The full comment on our worship of the pharmaceutical industry is in the clinical setting of Damien Hirst’s earlier work ‘Pharmacy’ (1992). It is like a church, presenting us with our self-appointed subject of worship. The four bottles of coloured liquid represent the four elements, reminiscent of those found in old apothecaries. The small stools usually used to reach things from higher shelves are instead topped with bowls of honey. The insects are lured to the pharmacy by the honey and then killed by the insect-o-cutor (reference to A Thousand Years). Hirst says that this symbolises our faith in medication even though we will all die in the end, our futile attempts to stave off death. Hirst draws strong parallels between religion and science as systems of belief, saying in 2005 ‘ There [are] four important things in life: religion, love, art and science. At their best, they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness. None of them really work that well, but they help. Of them all, science seems to be the one right now. Like religion, it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will all be all right in the end…’
The ‘iconography of medical science’ continues in Room 10 of the exhibition. In ‘Still’ and “Doubt’ (1994) and ‘Lapdancer’ (2006) Hirst extends his comments on medicine beyond the pharmaceutical and into the realm of surgical instruments and related objects. These are arranged in clinical fashion in stainless steel cabinets. These reminders of the more invasive aspects of medical treatment, and the idea that there isn’t always an easy fix make one feel uneasy. I almost longed to be back in Hirst’s pharmacy, which seems an almost comforting environment by comparison.
Religion and scientific themes are again brought together in ‘The Anatomy of an Angel’ (2008). A white marble sculpture of an angel in a traditional style which appears complete and perfect when viewed from one angle and worthy of the pages of an anatomy book from another. Part of the ‘skin’ is cut away and internal organs revealed in a powerful reflection on the struggle between religion and science.
If I had to pick one piece from the exhibition that I found unpleasant it would undoubtedly be ‘Black Sun” (2004), made the worse by me having gone right up to it before realising what it was. This huge surface is densely covered with dead flies. It provides a striking contrast to some of the earlier butterfly-themed work which carry connotations of life and beauty, and religious associations with resurrection. The association here is with death and decay. Damien Hirst has said that he enjoys dualities ‘Life and Death are the biggest polar opposites there are’.
The following room captures this theme too. On the right hand side is ‘Judgement Day’ (2009), replica jewels line shelves in the manner of ‘Lullaby, the Seasons’ and on the left, cigarette butts are arranged in the same fashion. The pills and dazzling jewels seem to capture priorities often cited, ‘health and wealth’, while the cigarette butts have connotations of disposability and death, the ever-present nemesis.
Damien Hirst has said ‘In an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time.’ Room 14 contains ‘Remembrance (2008). It is the last of Hirst’s spot paintings to be shown in the exhibition, and, as if to perfectly oppose everything that his earlier work in spots told us about his love of colour, the spots here are white.
‘For The Love of God’ (2007). Down in the Turbine Hall, this work draws the crowds you would expect. The dark surroundings, almost palpable security and small visitor groups, not to mention the dazzling contents, cannot fail to bring the Tower of London to mind. It is dramatic, it is exciting, it is exactly what you expect, but even sparklier. The darkened room and lighting add to the already great allure of 8601 flawless diamonds and the 52 carat ‘Skull Star’. Hirst asked himself what would be the maximum that he could pit against death, and this is his answer. ‘I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death’. It is Damien Hirst’s ultimate memento mori, complete with optimistic twist.