Damien Hirst’s Big Fat Tate Modern Retrospective

The key exhibition of the Cultural Olympiad opens for business

The biggest British art event of 2012 – Damien Hirst’s major retrospective, has now had its press preview. The teams of curators and gallery assistants burned the candle last night putting the finishing touches on an exhibition that has not been easy or straight forward to pull off. Behind the scenes on floor 3 of Tate Modern, pressure was on to deliver a world class exhibition, one worthy of representing the UK, as all eyes focus on London for the 2012 Olympics. The floor was  reinforced to hold the formaldehyde filled tanks and the multi-million pound lighting system focused on the massive Spot, Butterfly and Spin-Art paintings, filling the rooms of the most visited Modern Art Gallery in the world. Security was tight in the, “For The Love Of God” viewing room in the Turbine Hall. The only thing missing was the moving pavement, like the one at the Tower of London’s ‘Crown Jewel’ exhibit. So let’s have a look at how it all started; at how, for nearly a quarter of a century, Hirst would become, and remains today, the ultimate brand in art, even synonymous with the word ‘art’ in the popular imagination.

At the start of the 1990s a group of students then studying at Goldsmiths College, London, decided to apply the entrepreneurial ideology of Thatcherite Britain to the way that art is made and sold. It was in 1988 that Damien Hirst – arguably the ringleader – persuaded the London Docklands Development Corporation to allow him and his friends to use an abandoned warehouse to stage a three-part exhibition titled ‘Freeze’.

This pragmatic bypassing of the regular professional artworld procedures, as well as the lad-y sensationalist glitz of the artwork on display, instantly attracted commercial interest. With the help of key London dealers such as Karsten Schubert and Jay Jopling, Hirst and his pals attained international prominence almost overnight under the banner of YBAs, or ‘Young British Artists’. It was then that Charles Saatchi, and his patronage machine, stepped in, collecting the work of the YBAs en masse before prices skyrocketed. In 1997, the highlights of this collection would be showcased in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy.

And, of course, Damien Hirst would turn out to be the YBA to trump all YBAs. His works, in their intentionally haughty vacuousness and blatant sensationalism, seemed to capture the spirit of the 1990s; an age of money and product. Hirst created shockwaves after shockwaves with pieces such as ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990); here, a huge steel-and-glass vitrine reverberated with thousands of flies hatched from maggots, some buzzingly infesting a gruesomely decapitated cow’s head, others meeting their own end in the hanging electric fly killer.

A publicity genius and brash showman, he is now the world’s most financially successful artist, and the first and only YBA to be granted the great privilege of a Tate Modern retrospective. Hirst is also perhaps the world’s most controversial artist. Only last week, art critic and curator Julian Spalding warned collectors of Damien Hirst to sell sell sell before it was too late:  ‘The emperor has nothing on. When the penny drops that these are not art, it’s all going to collapse. Hirst should not be in the Tate’.

But whether he should or shouldn’t, at the Tate he will be. This will be the first substantial survey of his work in a British institution, bringing together key works from over twenty years. The exhibition will include iconic sculptures from his Natural History series, including The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991, in which he suspended a 14-foot tiger shark in formaldehyde. Also included will be vitrines (such as A Thousand Years), medicine cabinets, pill cabinets and instrument cabinets, in addition to seminal paintings made throughout his career using butterflies and flies as well as spots and spinning wheels.

For better or for worse, this is exciting stuff. The pressure was on to create an exhibition that the public would engage withand this one won’t disappoint.

Read Full Hirst Review Here

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