Tate Modern retrospective anticipates 2m visitors
‘We have more press here at the Damien Hirst press view, than there were people at the premier of Harry Potter’, Director of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon gleefully announced this morning. And, if the artworld really is the new Hollywood (as those in the know say that it is), then verily does Hirst step into the shoes of Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, and George Clooney; for if his international renown does not quite matchup to his celluloid analogues then, most certainly, do his paycheques.
A Tate Modern retrospective of this scale and profile is about time then; the first substantial survey of his work in a British institution, taking us right back to the beginning in the late 1980s, and traversing the monumental career of an exceptionally talented and precocious art student who would become perhaps the world’s most ostentatious luxury brand.
And the winning formula is present in those humble beginnings; of Hirst, the unashamed colourist, the banterful punter of over-simple ideas, and the lover of bad news, with the first room containing a joyfully messy first example of his spot paintings (1986), a ping-pong ball perpetually balancing on the airsteam of a hair dryer, and a photograph of the artist gaily posing with a corpse (as you do). From here onwards, this massive exhibition positively explodes with Hirsts’s unique combination of punky energy and savvy presentation, through the spot paintings, spin paintings, and butterfly paintings that provide the punctuation for his monumental sculptural works and installations.
The first showstopper is perhaps Hirst’s first major work; A Thousand Years (1990) – a huge glass vitrine reverberating with thousands of flies hatched from maggots, some buzzingly infesting a gruesomely decapitated cow’s head, others meeting their own fizzy end in a hyper-electrified insect-o-cutor – which, 20 years later, still has all that shock of the new. Severed heads are never pretty, but adding a luxuriously-spreading carpet of congealing blood, and a swarm of insects that sparkily combust as they haplessly land upon a grill of death, is enough put even the strong stomached off a steak dinner. And, in time, the work transcends the baseness of a gross-out, as we, looking at the work, become the flies, and see the great cycles of our lives enacted in a moment – a heaving population undergoing the painfully directionless processes of being born, ingesting, excreting, fornicating, and dying, inevitably.
These rather grundgey motifs are counterbalanced by the recreation of the installation In And Out Of Love, in which a whole room is filled with live butterflies that feast on mango (instead of carcass), and go on their merry way, alighting upon flowers and gently dirtying hung white canvases. More zoo than abattoir, this contrast demonstrates Hirst’s ability to move easily and swiftly from light to dark, dark to light, with many of his works gyrating unnervingly between the two poles.
Again and again Hirst’s work makes an undeniably claim to the status of ‘good art’. Take the iconic Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, for example. Time has notably ravaged this work, with the 14-foot shark suspended in formaldehyde certainly looking the worse for wear, its flesh tugged and torn by the hanging wires, and its surface texture more prune than effervescent lustre. So no longer does it inspire the originally-intended fear of being eaten; but it has instead gained a new significance, the shark having been transformed from the bringer of painful death, to an emblem of human death itself – the crusty remains of a once-living, once-vigorous being (you), despite all attempts at preservation.
And beyond the confines of the exhibition, free for all to see, is that infamous jewel-encrusted human skull ‘For The Love Of God’ – the ultimate statement of a rich man asking what the rich artist can do that a poor one cannot. Covered by 8,601 flawless diamonds, and topped off with a 52.4 carat pink diamond, the work inflamed controversy as the epitome of the vacuous money-based sensationalism peddled by Hirst. But, here in a Kaba-like black cube, it’s hard not to be seduced by the strange power of the work. Like the crowning jewel in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, it carries the cursed mystique of a desecrated relic, requiring a sort of hushed devotion as we contemplate the two greatest forces in human life – money and death.
In the flesh this exhibition gives the Hirstian finger to the haters – those armies of detractors that that denigrate his work as ‘… childish… , tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kids’ stuff, lacking in integrity …, nothing but visual candy …, sensational, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa)’, as the title of a spin painting so eloquently sums up. Viewed together in this massive and immersive manner, his works no longer seem like tabloid-courting one-liners; instead they appear as the coherent product of a remarkably lucid practice – of an artist with a clearly-defined visual language, yobbishly taunting us with the sordid but logical conclusions of an all-pervasive gluttony, and, further still, with that beyond-the-pale ickiness of our own sticky demise. Words: Thomas Keane / Photo: Paul Carter Robinson © 2012 ArtLyst
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