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Damien Hirst at Tate: Repetitive, super-sensationalised science-show which is strangely enjoyable

The blockbuster show of Tate’s annual exhibition calendar, a retrospective to YBA supremo Damien Hirst, has been long anticipated by London’s art scene as well as the purveyors of trashy gossip magazines and followers of The Only Way is Essex alike. And such is the pull of Damien Hirst – this isn’t highbrow fine art, it’s not oil paintings fastidiously executed or sculptures miraculously carved from marble. This is a highly-commercialised , over-exposed fair ground of cut up creatures and stomach-churning curiosities, highly laminated multi-coloured, multi-formed collected lacquered lustre and sparkling, extravagant and utterly pointless bling. And where there is bling, that twinkle to attract the masses, you don’t need to be erudite and sophisticated to pull in the crowds. This is Tate doing household gloss paint, not oil paint.

Damien Hirst, Lullaby, the Seasons (2002) (detail)

Damien Hirst, Arg-Glu (1994)

To give him is due, Mr Hirst is unapologetically tawdry . He doesn’t at least pretend to be the next Caravaggio. He makes art for a modern generation, a generation which consumes weekly updates on Katie Price’s deflating boobs rather than a good Jane Austen, who are only too aware of drug culture, who over use and abuse pharmacies in their hypochondriacal self-obsession, and are ultimately attracted by the latest trend, sensation or sparkle. No wonder Damien Hirst has been successful. He only had to stick diamonds to the fatalistically familiar skull and reproductions started springing up in homewear stores up and down the country. He took polka dots and made them uber-cool. Yet the Spanish have been celebrating the steadfast spot in their flamenco garb for centuries. Commercially clever Damien Hirst surely is. Super-skilled artist? I have my doubts. Yet without the guise and mystique of art to promote him, wouldn’t all of Damien Hirst’s oeuvre fall into a science museum/ interior design shop/ chemist/ butchers/ fishmongers where it belongs?

Damien Hirst, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) (1991) (detail)

There weren’t many surprises in the show. Such has been the success of Hirst’s publicity machine that almost every work is almost instantly recognisable.The dot paintings were predictable, and there were an AWFUL lot of them.  The great shark looms menacingly at the centre of the show. Either side of the shark, the sliced-in-half cow and calf, a few other fluffy sheep and birds (all in formaldehyde) are flanked by those repugnant rotting flies. All around the animal detritus, the repetitive spot motif translates into the pharmacy cabinets with row upon row of pill bottles, and then to the pills themselves, painstakingly laid out on shelf upon shelf, while next door you have fish, all laid out in the same direction, apparently “for the purpose of understanding”. Then you move on to the butterflies – the simpler butterfly pictures were a disappointment – the beautiful creatures had been clumsily placed onto thick gloss paint which messily spilled onto their delicate features.

Damien Hirst, Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007)

Much more impressive were the complex butterfly collages which were symmetrically placed to form incredible stained-glass window formations, not to mention the room which was full of live butterflies, their chrysalises forming their own kind of natural art as they attached themselves onto the blank canvases hung on the walls. There too were the “spin paintings” (basically paint chucked onto a fast moving canvas) and then, as though to emphasise the repetitive nature of Hirst’s work, a “bling” version of everything – the pill cabinet replaced with crystals, the coloured spots painted on a gold background, a smaller shark floating in a black tank rather than white, and butterflies stuck onto a gold canvas. There was also a superfluous obsession with cigarettes and ashtrays, used in Hirst’s art to make the oh-so novel point that one day we might die. Clever.

Damien Hirst, Judgement Day (2009)

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

So it was all rather predictable, and very repetitive, but strangely, and I hate to admit this, enjoyable. The insides of a cow are fascinating, not least when you get to walk in between the two halves of a once unified body. Looking down the huge throat of a shark at close quarters, shivering with horror when faced with its ghastly serrated teeth and menacing empty eyes is a unique experience, and the opportunity to appreciate the startling natural beauty of a multi-coloured catalogue of butterflies was a wonder. So too is it fun to look upon row upon row of multi-coloured pills and reflect on how many beautiful colours exists amongst a group of medicines which appear so mundane when viewed in isolation, or to appreciate the great skill of gravity in making such vivid and striking splashes when paint is spun around a canvas.

One of the spin paintings

However one can’t help but conclude, upon later analysis, that all the things you enjoyed at the exhibition were just   examples of the splendour of nature itself – the beauty of butterflies, the complexity of animal organs, the results of a spinning mechanism whose beauty is owed simply to chance. And yet if we had seen these things in a science museum, would we have given them a second glance? The isolation of the mundane within an artistic context certainly gives the objects the mystique and glamour which makes them deserving of our attention. But it is ironic that so much of what is praised of Damien Hirst’s work is what has simply been left to nature, or to chance.

Damien Hirst, No Feelings (1989)

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God (2007)

I cannot overly bemoan Hirst for creating a show which offers the chance to interact with his work, to engage with nature, and to enjoy thinking about what is, and what is not, art. I was also pleased that Tate did not try to swamp the visitor with overtly complex and inevitably meaningless lectures on what the art is supposed to mean and how it should be interpreted. Rather, on the whole the visitor was left to enjoy the show relatively uninterrupted, although Hirst’s titles are quite often unnecessarily convoluted and embarrassingly pretentious, not to mention barely related to the work titled.  But what really does make me feel uneasy is the knowledge that hardly any of the work on show has been made or created by Hirst himself, that there is no indication of any artistic talent, only of clever ideas.

Damien Hirst, The Anatomy of an Angel, 2008 – but who sculpted it??

As an artist myself, the most enjoyable thing about an exhibition for me is the chance to interact with it, to look at the art works and learn from the techniques, to appreciate the variation in skill and representation. In this exhibition that opportunity to interact with the work was lost. There is only so far you can be captivated by a medicine cabinet or a canvas packed with dead flies. In the latter butterflies gallery for example, where butterflies were used like stained glass windows, there was a sculpture of an angel, partially cut open to reveal the anatomy underneath. The sculpture was at first captivating, but the fact that I did not know who sculpted it, and whose skill I was appreciating really left something missing for me. The fact that most of these works are made my some factory process leaves me dead inside, just as I would be if someone asked me to study supermarket shelves for an hour.

For me, much of what is produced under the “Damien Hirst” brand will never be true art. It may be design, it may be the work of some unknown worker in the Hirst factory, or it may just be well preserved science, but it so often lacks the prerequisite skill to be art. Others will fiercely oppose my view, but that’s the great thing about the creative world. It makes us think, and in that respect alone, Damien Hirst is undoubtedly successful.

Damien Hirst, Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II (2006)

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, London, is on until 9 September 2012.

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