Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

The Damien Hirst Exhibition is into its final month at Tate Modern - it closes on 9th September 2012.  So why am I now only just getting round to reviewing it? There are three reasons:
  1. I'm not a fan of Hirst - I'm in the Robert Hughes camp.
  2. I've seen his work before in the dedicated room at Tate Britain
  3. I was pretty sure this exhibition was going to draw huge numbers when it first opened and I really don't like viewing crowded exhibitions.
However this is one of the major exhibitions being shown this year as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

So on Tuesday I went to see the exhibition after my hospital appointment at Barts and some time spent sketching Tate Modern from across the River Thames (see Travels with my Sketchbook - Two views across the Millennium Bridge & 'Tales from the Bridge' Soundscape)

The exhibition is a retrospective of his work to date and one of the interesting aspects is to see how themes play out across the years - and also to realise how few themes there have been in total.

I haven't bought the catalogue which was heavy on pictures and light on words so what follows is pure reaction from me - filtered by a few days to see what stuck in my mind.

Early works and early career

His early works are distinctly unimpressive in their concept and execution - period.  It is obvious however that he likes colour.

What was impressive was the way he organised the Freeze exhibition in 1988 in a disused London warehouse and got various key people in the art world and collectors to see it including Charles Saatchi, Nicholas Serota and Norman Rosenthal, the former Exhibitions Secretray of the Royal Academy.

To my mind this underlines the aspect of Hirst which I think he excels at - and that's the showmanship and marketing side of having a career as an artist.  His major contribution to British Art has been to generate more interest in looking at what artists have to offer.  My personal view is that he would have made a really great curator or gallery owner.  Maybe that's still to come?  At any rate in my eyes he's not a great artist - he's a phenomenon.

The quality of the workmanship also suggests to me that a very great deal of what followed was created by his assistants to his design.

The Formaldehyde Years

Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011
Photo: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates
Hirst is most well known for his dead shark.  It has been cited as the artwork which represented a generation -  and was iconic in relation to "Brit Art" along with Tracey Emin's My Bed. (see also Wikipedia - Young British Artists)

Artists who find an idea which attracts interest have a tendency to repeat it. It's a bit like films and sequels.  However, it is possible to reach a point when it all begins to get a bit 'samey'.

However - for those who have not seen them before - the exhibition does include:
  • the iconic work itself The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, in which a shark is suspended in formaldehyde in a work which weighs 23 tons. Except for the fact that this isn't the original shark - because that disntegrated!  This is a replacement shark
  • Mother and Child Divided (2007) a copy of the original 1993 exhibit a four-part sculpture of a bisected cow and calf - or as somebody correctly pointed out while I was there it's actually a cow in calf and calf.  There's a hoof in the uterine area of the cow and what appears to be a foetus - but I'm not sure anybody has noticed.......  Or maybe it's some sort of elaborate joke?
  • A Thousand Years (1990) in which the cyle of life is represented by a cow’s head, flies and insect-o-cutor.  One was left in no doubt that this is a fresh head.
I couldn't see anything anywhere in the exhibition which mentioned that these exhibits simply don't remain stable over time.  However it's well documented that the formaldehyde works have had to be  rehabilitated over time.

It left me wondering what these works were like when they were fresh.  After years in formaldehyde there's no question that animals begin to look very sad and very grey and the shark and farm animals are certainly not looking perky.

It also made me wonder whether the challenges of working with formaldehyde were what led him to the development of his Pharmacy cabinets which for me are lazy art.

Spots and Spinning

The spot paintings are everywhere, the spin paintings are rather fewer.  For me this is when the rather silly titles started.  For Hirst this was when he hit on that unique money maker - the theme with infinite variations none of which actually requires the artist for execution.

I like some of the spot paintings.  However they're totally meaningless.  I regard the titles as an elaborate pun or hoax of the art market.  Read Adrian Searle's review of the recent exhibitions around the globe to get a sense of how big the spot painting series actually is - Full circle: the endless attraction of Damien Hirst's spot paintings

The spin paintings are interesting purely from the perspective of looking at them as a technical achievement.  Again they mean nothing.

Damien Hirst 
Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kid’s stuff, lacking integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, sensational, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa) 1996
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011.
Photo: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates

The recycling of life cycles

I was nearing the end of the exhibition when I realised that his constant theme of life cycles also generates recycling flies and butterflies to create new works
  • so the flies which die as part of A Thousand Years presumably are swept up and then turn up again in Black Sun (2004) which has a surface covered in clusters of dead flies - supposedly as a counterpoint to the beauty of the butterfly paintings.  He certainly makes reference to the thousands of flies which dies as part of the installation in the narrative for Black Sun on his website
  • Then I realised the butterflyy paintings were recycling the butterflies which died as part of the "In and Out of Love" exhibit in which butterflies hatch out of pupae in a humid room and then fly about.  (His website includes a drawing by Hirst of his design for how this installation works - do take a look)
I think I'd have liked the butterfly paintings more if there were less of them.  Along the lines of "how much money does one man need?"

Damien Hirst - Sympathy in White Major - Absolution II 2006
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011.
Photo: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates
The Bling and the Luxury Goods Market

As one enters the final rooms, one cannot help but be reminded of people with too much money who like things that sparkle.  Hirst has been accused of no longer making art so much as items for the luxury goods market for people who have more money than sense.

The works from earlier in the exhibition are repeated - but this time they're shiny and sparkling. Finally he's caught up with Andy Warhol and the diamond dust.

These are examples of the 244 works which went into the famous auction on 15 and 16 September 2008 which took place at the same as the financial markets were crashing.  Let's not forget that the 244 works are produced by a studio which operates in ways similar to a factory - until Hirst had to lay people off.

I just found these final rooms to be tacky.

I also find it difficult not to agree with Robert Hughes that Hirst functions like a commercial brand when one sees the over-inflated prices for some of the products in the dedicated shop which forms part of the exhibition.  For me, it's aspects such as this which diminish his standing in the art world.

In summary I came away with the feeling that Damien Hirst has not had an original thought in relation to making art for some time.  I think I'd have preferred to see a pared down exhibition which said "This is what I want to be remembered for".

It also struck me that this summer I've seen exhibitions by two contemporary artists who both love colour this summer - and who I thought I didn't like.  I was very impressed with Warhol's work and loved looking at it.  However Hirst still has a long way to go before he impresses me.

The exhibition continues until the 9th September at Tate Modern

Admission £14 (£12.20 concessions) or £15.50 (£13.50 concessions) with Gift Aid donation. Open every day from 10.00–18.00 and late until 22.00 on Friday to Sunday 


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of the amount of spam and copying of my blog posts which is taking place. Removing them is taking too much time.
Please feel free to comment about the blog on my Facebook Page as my blog posts are always posted there but please note
1) anonymous comments are NEVER published
2) automated / spam / scam comments are never ever published on this blog
3) I ALWAYS block and report spammers to Google and/or on Facebook

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.