This week sees the opening of Damien Hirst’s Retrospective show at Tate Modern. The show charts Hirst’s works in a timeline, and includes a number of seminal pieces. This exhibition is not just about sharks, cows, and the £36,000 limited edition plastic skull you can buy in the gift shop on the way out. In conversations all week with cabbies, pundits and critics, reactions have centred around Hirst being overrated, overvalued and a charlatan. Brian Sewell wrote one the most vitriolic articles imaginable in the Evening Standard, and so one might imagine I’d have my work cut out to get you along to the Tate to see for yourself. However, in the way that I encouraged you to go to the Hockney exhibition to learn about perspective, I’d encourage you to see Hirst to explore your reactions to Death with a capital D, and to consider the impact of economics, commerciality and desirability on art.
It’s far too easy to dismiss Hirst’s work as profoundly commercial, and without merit. Perhaps he may have borrowed a number of themes from other artists, but I would conclude that on the whole Hirst’s examples are better presented, more polished, and more desirable. It is this ability to produce commercially desirable objects alongside objects which shock us which explains the endurance of Hirst’s commercial success. Brian Sewell may criticise Hirst’s twenty-five year reign, but ultimately surely this is the point? Perhaps Hirst is still selling spot paintings which he’s never touched, but whilst there is an audience for them, he is unlikely to stop their production. In order to consider why Hirst is so successful commercially, it’s important to understand a little of his early artistic background.
Damien Hirst is about to turn forty-seven. On 18th October 1987, forever known now as Black Monday, the world’s financial markets were turned upside down. The UK entered into an unprecedented level of unemployment, with a recession that lasted until 1993. It was in precisely this downturn that a young Damien Hirst, in his second year at Goldsmiths College, decided to curate his own art show Freeze in a disused warehouse in the Docklands. In that economic climate, Hirst realised that the chances of having their work seen and bought was very limited, and took the initiative to show his works and those of several fellow artists from Goldsmiths.
Hirst’s own works ultimately failed to sell, especially when he was unable to successfully remove them from the walls to which he had fixed them – this was a lesson well learnt. Those of his contemporaries did sell however, particularly Matt Collishaw’s Bullet Hole – shown on 15 light boxes it showed an image of an ice-pick wound in a human head.
Given that Hirst had enough initiative to stage the show in the first place, it is highly likely that he’d have looked at the items which sold, and drawn his own conclusions about what it meant to be commercially successful. In order to achieve any level of notoriety he was going to have to make works of art which would stand out from the crowd, and either shock or amaze us. Hirst was certainly already very deeply interested in death, having spent many hours drawing in the Anatomy Museum at Leeds University Medical School, and where he was photographed with the head of a dead man – a photo he would later show as With Dead Head, 1991. He was also deeply influenced by Francis Bacon, who often showed dramatic portraits of men confined and trapped in notional cubes. Hirst began to explore the themes of life and death, confinement and freedom.
Hirst’s next major piece of work in 1990 was entitled A Thousand Years. A giant glass vitrine split into two connecting halves, one half contains the rotting head of a cow, its blood spilt onto the floor. The other half contains a box housing hundreds of flies. The flies feed on the rotting corpse, then return to their box to lay their eggs, continuing a life and death cycle unchanged for a thousand years. The only change in this cycle is achieved through the electrical fly-zapper. Flies either avoid the zapper, or fly through it entirely at random, falling to their death on the floor. Charles Saatchi bought it on the spot. For the 25 year old Hirst, the future was clear and the acclaim he received convinced him he was heading in the right direction.
In 1991 Charles Saatchi sought to show the work of the Young British Artists (YBAs) in his gallery, and is said to have given Hirst a free reign to create a new work of his choosing. Shown early in 1992, Hirst presented a vitrine containing the now infamous tiger shark, pickled and transferred from Australia, and now floating in its formaldehyde bath. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living achieved immediate notoriety, and Hirst was plastered across the The Sun with the headline “£50000 for fish without chips”. In this retrospective the shark has been recreated, this time with his mouth open, allowing you to look into the gaping heart of the shark, to stare death in the stomach.
It was also at this time that Hirst presented his butterfly installations In and Out of Love in London, where viewers are can see the full life cycle of a butterfly, from pupae attached to the walls, to hatching and feeding butterflies, and ultimately through to their death by the end of the exhibition. For me, butterflies are one of the ultimate momento mori – exquisitely beautiful, ultimately frail and fleeting.
In 1993 a number of the YBAs were greeted for a New York show by Jeff Koons. Gregor Muir reports that Koons said “he had little interest in art theory, preferring instead to flick through the pages of glossy magazines. For us he represented a form of art without hangups”. Muir also notes that “Artists such as Damien Hirst and the Chapman’s would have been struck by the way Koons played the market and made his fortune seemingly overnight”. Here was an artist making his fortune producing giant teddy bears, glossy rabbits and puppies. For Hirst he was the legitimisation of this new approach – Koons’ work appeared in major museums and was being shown in galleries all over the world.
At the 1993 Venice Biennale, Hirst presented Mother and Child Divided, a cow and a calf cut in half, and placed alongside each other in containers of formaldehyde. By 1995, and on his second nomination, Hirst was awarded the Turner Prize. In 1998 Hirst lent a number of his Pharmacy installations to the Pharmacy bar and restaurant in London which subsequently sold at Sotheby’s for £11m in 2004.
Some disquiet about his achievements remained, but later works began to take on a more hopeful and meditative feel, particularly with the stained glass windows made from intricately placed butterfly wings, such as Hirst’s Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven and the very serene Sympathy in White Major.
There is also Hirst’s dove, The Incomplete Truth, floating again in his trade-mark formaldehyde, its wings outstretched. Later commissions of previous themes resulted in butterflies on gold backgrounds embedded with crystals, and brightly mirrored cabinets set with cubic zirconia.
And then in 2007 Hirst took on the ultimate momento mori, the 2007 platinum skull set with 8,601 flawless diamonds, entitled For the Love of God. This was inspired by Hirst’s time in Mexico, with its rich artistic and cultural associations with death. Ultimately I’m always surprised by the way For the love of God was received. Skulls are an incredibly common momento mori, and are featured in many seminal works, including Hobein’s anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors. Where people saw an incredible waste of money, actually I saw a significant poke at the establishment. Surely there is no bigger irony than making a momento mori from practically everlasting and ridiculously expensive materials? What speaks better of death than an artwork which will ultimately outlive the artist?
I would also question the vitriolic attack on Hirst’s seemingly endless Butterfly and Spot paintings. The last time I checked it was considered perfectly reasonable for Andy Warhol to have churned out endless variations of Chairman Mao, Marylyn and the Campbell Soup Can prints. In turn those were endlessly replicated, remastered and appropriate by a myriad of artists. And not only has Sir Peter Blake produced many, many runs of his Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he has also produced several butterfly prints actually as a homage to Damien Hirst.
Whether or not you make it to Tate Modern to see the Damien Hirst exhibition, I do hope you will look beyond the corpses, beyond the spots and the endless pills, and consider the narrative – Hirst’s art was created in a very specific environment, and in a very specific aesthetic genre. This is precisely what makes is so interesting and challenging.
The Damien Hirst Retrospective is on at Tate Modern until the 9th September 2012.
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