Damien Hirst at Tate Modern – creative genius or national disgrace?

15 09 2012

‘I just wanted to find where the boundaries were. I found out there aren’t any. I wanted to be stopped but no one will stop me.’

‘I believe all painting and art should be uplifting for the viewer.’

‘As an artist you’re looking for universal triggers. You want it both ways. You want it to have an immediate impact, and you want it to have deep meanings as well. I’m striving for both.’

‘Painting is so poetic, while sculpture is more logical and scientific and makes you worry about gravity.’

‘I think art is good at looking back and looking forward. I don’t think art is good at looking head-on…’

Damien Hurst YBA (Young British Artist) 1965-

Damien Hirst, born in Bristol, raised in Leeds, and a graduate of Goldsmith’s College, London has become one of the most prominent, talked about artists of his generation.

Over the last five months Tate Modern has housed the first major retrospective of his work, to be held in London; an opportunity to experience many of his most iconic works.

Cutting it rather fine, it wasn’t until the final Saturday of the exhibition that I paid a visit. I’m glad I did. It was a most enjoyable experience – challenging, thought provoking, and yes, even aesthetically pleasing.

Amongst the show-stoppers were:

‘The Physical Impossibility of death in the Mind of Someone Living’ – Hurst’s famous shark in formaldehyde, intended to promote primal fear, but to be honest a little stale and familiar now, more reminiscent of a Universal Studios prop from Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ movie.   

‘Mother and Child Divided’ – another well-known work from Hirst’s natural history series, a cow and calf sliced in half, each displayed in a separate tank, bisected to reveal the flesh, organs and skeletal structure beneath the skin. This notion of simultaneously seeing what is on the inside and outside is a recurring theme.      

‘A Thousand Years’ – a life-cycle enactment of birth, life, death and decay. Enclosed within a glass vitrine, maggots hatch, developing into flies which feed on a severed cow’s head. While many perish on an insect-o-cutor, others survive to continue the cycle.    

‘Crematorium’ – an oversized ashtray filled with a lifetime’s accumulation of cigarette butts and ash, providing a sombre reminder of the inevitability of death. The use of smoking to symbolise a mini life-cycle is also present in ‘Dead Ends Died Out’ – cigarettes butts displayed along the shelves of a cabinet as if they were natural history exhibits.

‘Lullaby, the Seasons’ – a series of four stainless steel cabinets, shelves filled with facsimile pills, sleep inducing pharmaceuticals, their colours relating to each of the seasons, symbolising the passing of time and the transient nature of life.

‘The Anatomy of an Angel’ – sculpted from white marble, one of a series of works combining religious and scientific themes. Viewed from one angle it is a classical religious representation, but from another a section of internal human organs is revealed.

‘Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds’– a pair of stunning butterfly motifs, the former arranged in complex patterns, which echo medieval stained glass church windows, and the latter a kaleidoscopic representation of Buddhist and Hindu artistic traditions.

‘The Incomplete Truth’ – a dove hovering, suspended mid-flight in formaldehyde. The dove, with both Christian and secular associations, symbolising the Holy Spirit and peace, is intended to demonstrate that Truth cannot be found in absolutes but, rather, in dualities and the tension between them.     

I admit that for a while I have wondered just how much, the undoubtedly talented, Hirst  has been trying it on, attempting to push the boundaries as far as he can, stringing us along, a clever con-artist having a laugh at, not with, his adoring audience, while raking it in.

If nothing else, this exhibition, with its excellent commentary, has enabled me to look beyond the sensationalism, to appreciate something of the thinking behind Hirst’s work and to view his creativity with a more open mind.  

Certainly, Damien Hirst, the self-publicist, courts controversy, appearing to revel in the title ‘national disgrace’ recently thrust upon him by The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, in his OnArt Blog.  Jones delighted in taking Hirst to task over a Blue Peter TV appearance, during which he was presented with a gold badge after claiming his famous spin-paintings were inspired by watching former presenter John Noakes using a paint machine, way back in 1975. Jones considered it crass for Hirst to suggest to children that such simplistic paintings were every bit as valid as masterpieces created by Van Gogh!

I actually enjoy Hirst’s spin paintings – an apparent celebration of the pure joy of colour – and equally his trademark series of Spot Paintings. Of course with these, as with much contemporary art, there is a tendency for the untutored eye to disclaim it as simplistic and something anyone could do. That may or not be the case, but surely it is within the originality of the idea that lays the artist’s skill.   

Earlier this week, Hirst made headlines again, when over one hundred residents in the sleepy North Devon town of Ilfracombe, roused themselves to complain about the local council’s decision to attract more tourism to the town by taking up an offer of a 20 year loan of his Modern Truth Allegory .

Standing at 67 feet, ten inches taller than Gormley’s Angel of the North, the bronze statue of a young naked, pregnant woman, ‘Verity’, atop a pile of legal books, sword held aloft has split local public opinion. While opponents consider it immoral, demeaning, offensive and not at all in keeping with family values, those in favour view it has thought-provoking, stirring and unique. And then there are the cash sharks who can merely hear the clink of cash registers heralding an economic boom for the seaside town.

Hirst already owns a local restaurant, ‘11 The Quay’, decorated with selected pieces of his work so, for me,  that now makes two good reasons to pay Ilfracombe a visit.