Thursday, 5 April 2012
Damian Hirst, Tate Modern
That notoriety is a little tired now. This YBA is no longer Y and the shock factor of his work is dampened by familiarity. The impact of seeing animal cadavers in tanks and, most notably, A Thousand Years (1990), the piece in which flies hatch, feed on the head of a cow and then die by electric trap is attenuated. How we have all grown up since Sensation in 1997: I wasn't overly ruffled until I noticed that the bloody cow's head has been placed directly on the wooden floor of the gallery and will likely leave a stain. That said, I did see both adults and children recoiling from Black Sun (2004) which, on closer examination, can be seen to be made of thousands of dead flies. Maybe this has something to do with flies in the open air, however dead, unlike the sealed tank in which they live, fly and die. (There's also a biblical-plague angle to that piece, of which more later.)
Boxes (1988), a response to the sculptural abstraction of the likes of Donald Judd, but not placed on the floor, like the work of the older artist or even at conventional height on the wall, but flying up in a corner. Footage from the infamous Freeze exhibition Hirst curated of his own and contemporaries' work in 1988 had similar pieces in the rafters of that exhibition space, like abstract roosting birds.
These pieces have a sense of being alive, with the freedom that this confers to their existence. For Hirst where there is life there is also death and so I rather like the symbolism of What Goes Up's hairdryer being shaped like a gun. It's certainly a more powerful piece than its Koons-like counterpart in Room 8 Loving In A World Of Desire (1996) in which a beach ball is suspended over a more discreetly housed fan.
In the context of the earlier meditations on death, the shark and contemporaneous works suggest this Christian influence is a genuine shift in priority. A Thousand Years show us the life cycle with extreme but honest brutality. Pharmacy (1992) is no less clinical (literally) for showing cabinets of physical succour rather than the spiritual nourishment that one tends to associate with an art gallery. Pharmacy's direct relation to A Thousand Years is represented by the recurrent Insect-o-cutor, like the momento mori in a still life of a renaissance apothecary's dispensary. For all the healing offered by the drugs there's also the peril of addiction and fatality therein as well; this is the meaning of the attractive but hazardous bowls of honeycomb also in the room, not to mention the similar cabinets of surgical instruments in Room 11, tools of advanced surgical care but pointing outwards like weapons, nonetheless.
Between these two pieces is the gallery's most popular Room, 6, the live butterfly counterpart to a two space installation In And Out Of Love (1991). In this climate controlled environment, butterflies hatch from pupae attached to white canvases. The freedom that the space confers on them is an attractive draw for the visitor, from whom butterflies must be removed before moving on in the exhibition. The proximity, the interaction with the animals, especially such beautiful, gentle ones, is appealing. Again the piece is facilitated by the animals' ability to fly.
Poisons And Remedies exhibition for the Gagosian a couple of years ago, in which pills were attached to canvases and their colourant allowed to run and stain the surface. This messy pathos is the art, the record of birth that simultaneously resonates with the filth and arbitrariness of death. I also like the canvases as a record of the transition - the 'death' of the pupae to become the butterfly, which, with its astonishing colour and bewilderingly short life-span becomes the supernatural part of the life-cycle.
This is reflected in the religious pieces of the later rooms. Room 11 shows Doorways To The Kingdom Of Heaven (2007), mock-stained glass windows which are decorated with the wings of dead butterflies, instead of pictures of saints or God himself. This extends into the subsequent room - a strangely moving room at the time of this exhibition's opening, Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. Butterfly wallpaper, based on the symmetrical designs of Doorways cover the walls. The two pieces are the Boschian, repellant Black Sun and Black Sheep (also 2007) a black version of Away From The Flock (1994) in which a sheep is suspended in a tank.
What's interesting about this room is not what the pieces mean in themselves but rather how it demonstrates Hirst's consistency of thought. Faced with his own developing interest in the meaning of death rather than our relationship with it he has extended his ideas to see if the discourse holds. It's testament to the authenticity of his ideas that there is some substance here.
Crowning this digression of course, is For The Love Of God (2007), the $50M diamond-encrusted skull (which is free to all visitors to Tate Modern in a specially constructed room in the centre of the Turbine Hall). When the piece was publicised I found myself rather disgusted. Seeing it close up, I have to admit that it is rather beautiful - as well as being party to the other-worldliness that the reflection, refraction and simple partitioning of being behind thick glass confers on it as on the animal vitrines. It does represent the belligerent Hirst's (successful) struggle to come out on top of a tricky argument about the nature and value of art. It also represents Hirst's admirable following through of his own ideas, yes, 'aesthetic' even. I left this major exhibition with thoughts on the nature of the life cycle drifting through my head like the ubiquitous butterflies, and admiring the artist's consistency in engaging with and pursuing his themes. I'd call that a success.
First image aside, all images from Hirst's website, to be found here.