Thursday, 5 April 2012

Damien Hirst, Tate Modern

This retrospective of Damien Hirst's work is not sponsored by Red Bull but it is certainly deserving of the familiar slogan: 'Damien Hirst gives you wings!'. I came away from the exhibition with a number of impressions. One of these is the profusion of wings, wings on animals both living and dead, wings sculpted, painted and pickled. Flight is an integral symbol of the life-cycle for this artist, and recognising this gives crucial ballast to the balancing, life end of the life-cycle that his work examines, given that the rather more notorious works are overtly focused on death.

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.)

Why this interest in flight then? Well, I think it's possible to see some sort of clue even in the first room (which even Hirst admits is embarrassing). There are two pieces: What Goes Up Must Come Down (1994) is a ping pong ball freely suspended on the updraught from a hairdryer; there's also 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.

And so to The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living (1991), or 'the shark'. I found myself distracted by the Physical Impossibility of suspending the shark in the middle of the tank - is the formaldehyde solution dense, like the aspic of a pork pie?! In fact, the animal's body is held in place by translucent wires. This is, perhaps, an overlooked quality of the piece, that to fix the shark in a position that would correspond to how it would be found alive in its natural habit it would need to be suspended free in its element, without a base. The incongruity of the title is that of confronting death and Hirst tries to enable some sort of dialogue with that incongruity by providing other impossibilities. A real shark in an art gallery? Well, once that novelty has subsided there's the more troubling issue that a shark must necessarily continue to move forward to survive. To see the stationary animal fixed as if alive in this fluid taxidermy is not the same as looking at a stuffed cat, for example.

The final room gives us another example of this suspended-in-flight installation with The Incomplete Truth (2006) in which a dove is fixed either taking off or landing. Coming as it does after a series of works in Rooms reflecting a more overtly religious literacy in the art, one can be forgiven for making Christian associations (and there is some irony here given the Genesis story that a dove released from the ark and not seen again suggested that dry land had been found. Maybe it drowned!)

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.

Yet it's easy to ignore the prior counterpart room (Room 5) in the queue for this space with its coloured canvases fixed with long dead butterflies. Moreover, its easy to overlook the canvases on which the butterflies hatch. This secondary room is subtitled White Paintings And Live Butterflies and one cannot help to be drawn to the dribbles of fluid that seep down the canvases as from the split pupae. Such stains were the one notable and even disturbing facet of Hirst's 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.

Where I begin to struggle a bit is in the more Koonsian sphere, in which currency becomes the arbiter of what has aesthetic value. Immediately following the Easter Room (Room 12) is a room reflecting the extraordinary sale of his work from 2008, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. Synthesised diamonds line the walls in glittering cabinets. Another shark sits in a dark tank, smaller and less threatening than its predecessor, like a baby panther on a leash cosseted by a wealthy oligarch who fears dealing with an adult cat.

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.

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