April 4 – September 9
Ever since Damien Hirst organised the first exhibition of the Young British Artists’ (YBAs) work in East London in 1988, almost everything he has made, done or said has been scrutinised and discussed throughout the art community and by the public at large. Throughout his career, opinions have been divided: is he a genius or a fraud? To say that Hirst has been financially successful is an understatement in the extreme: Sotheby’s landmark sale of Hirst’s work in 2008 made 111 million pounds, and that was just one day — he has been doing this for 25 years.
Whatever your particular feelings are towards him and his art, there is no escaping the brilliance of Hirst’s early work and no getting away from how profoundly he and his YBA contemporaries transformed the world of British art.
Raised a Roman Catholic, Hirst’s four main themes, manifest in all of his works, are life, death, beauty and ugliness. All the big Hirstian statements that have appalled certain critics with their supposed lack of imagination have also dragged conceptualism from the margins of the art world into the mainstream.
Damien Hirst, the exhibition, is the first substantial survey of the artist’s work in a major British institution bringing together key pieces from the last 25 years of his career. The artist is keen to stress, however, that the exhibition is a “map of his life as an artist” rather than a collection of “greatest hits”, and in some respects he has achieved exactly what he set out to do.
It is to some extent surprising that this retrospective is occurring at all. Hirst’s famous reply to the question “So what about a big Tate gallery show then?” was, “No way. Museums are for dead artists. I’d never show my work in the Tate. You’d never get me in that place.” What a difference a decade makes.
One of the first things that strikes you as you walk around the exhibition is the sheer range of work that Hirst has produced throughout his career, as well as the expense of the materials used. From the enormous vitrines containing his floating sharks, fish and sheep to diamond-encrusted skulls and the spot paintings executed by dozens of artists on Hirst’s behalf, expense is built into these works and is part of their aesthetic.
One of the headline pieces in the retrospective is the 1991 iconic work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Here a shark is suspended in a solution of formaldehyde — on the face of it, a stark and somewhat insensitive portrayal of death. However, on closer inspection, the work becomes more of a celebration of triumph over death, a triumph of human cunning, more than it is a confrontation of death itself.
Another controversial work, For the Love of God, is displayed in a darkened room in the vast turbine hall. This iconic piece from 2008 is a platinum skull set with 8,601 diamonds weighing a combined 1,106 carats. One of Hirst’s most widely-recognised works, it cost 14 million pounds to make and is rumoured to be valued at around 50 million pounds — a truly modern vanitas piece about death and money, but mostly about money.
As you walk from room to room you can clearly see the evolution of the artist’s work over time. It was Nick Serota, director of Tate Modern, who insisted that Hirst show his early work as well as the first piece from every series he has made ever since. “The first spot painting, the first spin painting, the first vitrine, the first medicine cabinet. They’re all in there,” says Hirst.
Other important works in the retrospective are Mother and Child Divided, where Hirst has bisected a cow and calf and placed the sections in four formaldehyde filled vitrines, as well as Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, a work which features an assemblage of mythical beasts including a unicorn and a gilded calf. Works using butterfly wings to create a stained-glass window effect are somewhat gruesome, but also stunningly beautiful. There are also a variety of spin paintings, as well as many, many (far too many) spot paintings.
Respite from Hirst’s constant ode to death can be found in one room, in the form of his 1991 work In And Out Of Love. This installation features a room filled with live butterflies feeding on bowls of fruit. Although intended to be a more serious discussion on the theme of mortality and the fragility of life, it does create a playful and charming interlude.
It is not just the visitor’s sense of vision that will be assaulted by the show. The smell of 1990’s A Thousand Years, an installation in which flies emerge from maggots and feed on a rotting cow’s head before being zapped by a bug lamp, will live particularly long in the memory. Also in the show is the 1995 work Horror at Home, which consists of a giant ashtray filled with cigarette butts.
It is safe to say that Hirst’s retrospective will not be everybody’s cup of tea, as the show assaults not only the senses, but one’s sensibilities too. Whether he is a con man, a genius or a little bit of both, this major retrospective is a fantastic opportunity to view the last 25 years of creative outpouring from one of the most important British artists to have emerged in the last 30 years.