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Damien Hirst exhibition!

August 7, 2012

At the end of July I finally went to see the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern. It’s still open, until September 9th 2012, though I’d imagine that most of the people who’d be interested in seeing it would have already seen it! For more info, go here!

This is a pretty big exhibition, as I guess could be expected from an artist who has been a major force in the art world for the past 20 years. He has gained notoriety through his work; even people with no interest in contemporary art are probably vaguely familiar with the man who has stuffed sharks, sliced cows in half and more recently, covered a skull in diamonds. I think everyone who’s had an art education has a different (usually exaggerated) opinion on Hirst, ranging from believing he’s an amazing visionary to thinking he’s just a shrewd businessman. His work can be quite divisive, so I’m just going to write about what I think about it.

Personally I’m not a huge fan of all of his spot paintings, but I quite enjoyed seeing the early 1986 ‘Spot Painting’ (household gloss paint on board) because of how the surfaces visible on the sides of the board look quite rough. It makes me think he might have rescued the board from a skip to paint on, like me and my old University cohorts might have done. On the other hand, I feel like with his more recent spot paintings, which are apparently about him being in control of colour, the fact that they’re made by other people might negate the ideas of control, for example if the assistant used a slightly different colour than instructed, would Hirst himself know? Perhaps he could be purposefully losing control of an idea about the work being tightly controlled.

‘A Thousand Years’ 1990 (look away if you’re squeamish) is a huge glass vitrine in which the life cycle of a fly is played out, from hatching inside a white cube, feeding on a cow’s head, then either meeting their end in an insect-o-cutor or living on to continue the cycle. This piece is a bit gross but is a very direct way of approaching ideas about birth and death, beginnings and endings. The life cycle is out of the artist’s control in one way, as he doesn’t choose which flies live or die, but it is all enclosed and contained, so it becomes a highly controlled environment, an almost artificial life cycle.

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ 1991 is one of Hirst’s infamous sharks. In a huge tank, preserved with formaldehyde, this shark is subtly strung up as though still swimming, looming large, but not as large as I’d expected it to be. The glass had a distorting effect on the piece, but the shark is distorted already. Its skin has gone wrinkly, it’s sagging, it looks a bit sad. I love the title, because it raises the question of how impossible it is for a living person to really confront and contemplate the idea of death. Even with this real, dead thing in front of you, you can’t truly feel what being dead will be like. I felt a bit sorry for the shark, with its wrinkles and sagginess. It seems to be deteriorating, though apparently it has already been restored with a new specimen several years ago when the original started disintegrating.

The famous shark!

A moving image piece, ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ 2011 performed by U2, displayed on a CRT television screen, reads like a music video promoting Hirst’s work. To me it has a distinctly 1990s slightly kaleidoscopic feel despite being made in 2011 and featuring his 2007 ‘For the Love of God’ skull encrusted with diamonds. As well as this, it features another of his recurring motifs, butterflies, being faded out with flames, then rejuvenating, and the spin paintings and the flies. As well as this, the video for ‘Country House’ by Blur was shown on the same screen, which was made in 1995 and directed by Hirst, which I hadn’t actually realised before! But it integrates with his other work, was enjoyable to watch in a gallery context and gave me a huge dose of nostalgia for the 1990s.

The live butterfly room ‘In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)’ 1991 was a brilliant experience to visit. The room is kept specially warm and humid so that real butterflies hatch from the cocoons hanging from the white canvases that line the walls. They are fed on fruit on a table in the centre of the room and they can mate and continue the life cycle. The butterflies are everywhere, flying around or just hanging out in the room, occasionally landing on people and having to be carefully removed by the staff. Lots of the butterflies have brown on the outside of their wings, with a bright blue inside, visible when they fly, which was pretty dazzling.

The Spin Paintings are hung from the walls, and are actually spinning, motorised. They were much bigger than I’d expected. I liked ‘Beautiful, cataclysmic pink minty shifting horizon exploding star with ghostly presence, wide, broad, painting’ 2004, below, which is nicely summed up in its title.

‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ 1995, is a cow and calf, preserved in formaldehyde in tanks. They are divided not only because they are in separate tanks from each other, but also because they are each split in half so you can walk through the centre of the animal, each half in a separate tank. Here they are preserved, yet the idea of them looking alive is done away with, you can clearly see the structure of the inside of the animal, the beige insides. The cow is absolutely huge, and the calf is tiny. The insides almost don’t look real, you can’t quite believe that you’re walking through the centre of a cow, it’s bizarre.

As you enter a dazzling gold wallpapered room towards the end of the exhibit, you are faced with ‘The Kingdom’ 2008, another shark piece. This one is smaller than the other, its eyes look more open and it looks a bit more lively, though it’s still a little bit wrinkled and sad-looking. In the same room ‘Midas and the Infinite’ 2008 glimmers at you. Made of butterflies, cubic zirconia and gold enamel paint on canvas, the combination of materials is overpowering. This particular room is full of work that sparkles and overwhelms.

‘Black Sheep’ 2007, is a beautiful black/dark brown sheep suspended in formaldehyde. It arches its back and looks ready to jump. I thought this particular sheep was the most beautiful. The way Hirst conveys death and beauty as interrelated concepts is particularly prominent here and in ‘The Incomplete Truth’ 2008, which is a dove suspended in formaldehyde. It looks like it is mid-flight, looks happy, and seems to work with the conventions of doves symbolising hope, acting as a peaceful, calm ending to the exhibit.

Overall I’m really glad I saw this exhibition and would recommend it to even those who think they don’t like Hirst’s work, because I think it’s a really important major exhibition. It’s so big that I think you’re bound to find a piece you’re interested in, and if you enter in the right frame of mind, the work can have a powerful impact on the viewer. There’s so many pieces that I haven’t mentioned because it’s such a vast exhibition. Some of it has a clinical feel, but most of the time I think this is purposeful, such as ‘Pharmacy’ 1992. It’s a great opportunity to see pieces of work up-close that you’ve only previously seen on TV and in art books, as much of the work is in private collections, which the public rarely get to see in person.

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