Those who know my taste in art wouldn’t expect my first post to be on Hirst. But the Picasso in Britain show, which I loved, has unfortunately left town. So my first post will be on contemporary art.
My first impressions of Damien Hirst were from his Sotheby’s sale in 2008, which was in itself a mini-scandal as he bypassed art galleries and sold directly 200+ works directly via the auction house. At the time, I compared him to Warhol with his series works, in particular his animals in formaldehyde and his butterfly covered panels. I thought of him less as an art rebel (though he did irritate my conservative tastes in art) and more of an astute marketer.
Nevertheless, I was excited to go see his retrospective at the Tate Modern two weekends ago – I love Friday evenings at the Tate! Room 1 started on a positive note with colourful pans. I like this work (“8 Pans”)which reminded me of his spot paintings, and was surprised that Mr BB, my super cook didn’t like it!) . Also in the first room were cardboard board boxes (“boxes”) arranged harmoniously in shapes and colours assembled harmoniously on the wall. You also see the first “live art” piece of the exhibition with “What Goes Up Must Come Down”), in plain words a ping-pong ball suspended in mid-air by the air from a hair dryer… not impressed! There is also a spot painting, hung on the wall rather than placed on the floor this time (remember Chris Offili anyone? Tate Britain, 2010). Let’s continue with the highlights of the other rooms…
Room 2 had a variety of spot paintings. According to the Tate, Hirst did not paint the circles himself, instead he delegated the task to his students with a precise instructions. Far more dramatic are his infamous animals preserved in formaldehyde, the medicine and curiosity cabinets, and topping it all off “A Thousand Years”, which features a severed bull’s head sitting in a pool of blood on the floor with a swarm of flies around it. The piece is intended to show the life cycle of the flies, which hatch on the bull head, and and eventually meet their end on the Insect-O-Cutor. To me, the Insect-O-Cutor was unnecessary because it is not part of the life cycle but a human addition. Overall though, if the purpose was to shock and create a living art piece (I went again on Friday and the bull head has decayed significantly), Hirst has succeeded. The artist presented a similar work at the Royal Academy for the Modern British Sculpture exhibition in 2011, which features thousands of flies around a picnic table with leftovers…
A few rooms later you enter a humid room filled with live butterflies busily creating their own works of art on white canvases (“In and Out of Love”). I will let you discover this one, all I can say is that I was positively surprised by his creative process. Hirst also
has a fascination for pharmacies and medicines and recreated a pharmacy – being in a pharmacy is not particularly fun but being in a pharmacy in a museum is! Other important works are “The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living” and “Mother and Child Divided”, the former containing a shark and the latter a cow split down the middle. There is a giant ash tray, which complete with smell, as well as other curiosity cabinets. “The Incomplete Truth”, the final work of the exhibition, shows a dove flying and reminded me a surrealist work from Magritte. It was a good close for the exhibition.
So Hirst @ Tate 2012 is disturbing, entertaining, voyeuristic… I recommend you go. Only a few exhibitions have made me change my mind about artists (notably Bacon at the Tate Britain). You either love or hate Damian Hirst (Mr BB said the exhibition had the opposite effect, convincing him he doesn’t like Hirst!) for good reasons in my view, but I believe Hirst is as important to British art as Marcel Duchamp was for French art.