Standing outside the Tate Modern is a larger than life anatomical model which looks like it was enlarged straight out of a science class. In fact, it is Damien Hirst’s way of welcoming you into his first major retrospective show. Whether good or bad, the YBA who first came to media attention after his notorious Freeze exhibition of 1988, has given everyone something to talk about. The exhibition, which focuses on the theme of life and death, encompasses 24 years of work and includes 70 artworks across 14 rooms.
I first went along to see the infamous diamond skull – For The Love Of God. Only a handful of viewers are allowed into the almost pitch black room at a time and upon entering it is clear why. Made up of 8,601 diamonds, the skull glitters from every angle and is so shockingly beautiful that it doesn’t seem real, even though it is slightly haunting to think that these diamonds have been drummed into the remains of someone who has long been dead. This spectacular preview to the rest of the show gives a glimpse of what is inside the exhibition doors whilst also preempting the artists extensive fascination with death.
At the beginning of the exhibition, you are confronted with the colourful beginnings of the artist’s career. A sheer love of colour is clear from the onset in the form of the spot and spin paintings. Whilst these works do not excite me, it is evident that Hirst has a strong concern for order and organisation. The spots are meticulously painted in a uniform fashion and this is further seen in the medicine and pill cabinets with the ordering of surgical implements and medical packaging.
The animals in formaldehyde also show some sort of order in the form of Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding, fish fashioned into some sort of queue which I must admit I found strangely mesmerising. This technique of preserving animal carcasses in formaldehyde reminds me a little of the plastination technique patented by Gunther von Hagens in 1977 and while not identical, the ideas are similar. For a lot of the time I felt like I was in the Science and Natural History Museums and not an art gallery. Mother and Child Divided looks like a science demonstration and the shark in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living had lost its shock factor having been desensitised by its overexposure in the media.
For me, the standout pieces of the show were the butterfly canvases arranged in perfect symmetry in the form of stained glass in Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven and Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II. Hirst also uses butterflies in In and Out of Love in which we are confronted with dead butterflies attached to canvases with ashtrays full of rotting cigarettes lay on empty tables, while in the next room, pupae are attached to canvases and live butterflies can be seen eating fresh fruit. Many dislike this use of live butterflies but I personally don’t see the problem. A more controversial use of insects is in A Thousand Years, where Hirst has shown the cycle of life with flies feeding off a rotting cows head and then dying when they come to the light and the wrath of an ‘insect-o-cutor.’
Writing this was difficult for me. It is impossible to see this exhibition with a sense of honesty, a blindness to the media exposure. Many exhibits which would have caused shock simply didn’t, and works which impressed but wouldn’t have had I not read so much about the artist did. For me, it is clear that Hirst is an artist of concept, and no real sense of skill in terms of fine art can really be argued for. His work is more about design, it is clever, and the artist is lucky to be living in an age where artworks have titles which, a lot of the time, give more meaning to the work than the art itself. Regardless of any notion of novelty, spectacle or intrigue, the show has to be seen.
Damien Hirst is on display at the Tate Modern until September 9