Damien Hirst, Tate Modern | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Damien Hirst, Tate Modern
Beyond the media hoopla, the artist's retrospective isn't all smoke and mirrors
How long will it take for the penny to finally drop and to know we’ve been had all along? Months? Years? Ten years? Twenty? Will it really take that long before we come to our senses, and to wonder at our own gullibility? I’m talking not of Damien Hirst, who some now imagine has been conning us all for years, but of the execrable Lady Gaga. Yes, Gaga must be “exposed”! For is pap in pop really any lesser crime than art pap? You might think it is, even though, through the Nineties, both Britpop and Britart bobbed along on the crest of a Cool Britannia wave. They woz soulmates.
We don’t expect gallery artists to be like Lady Gaga, or The Spice Girls, though. Art is different: however “low” we’ve sought to take it, whatever demotic argot it strives to talk in, it’s still part of High Culture. And in High Culture the language of money is dirty, even though it was Warhol himself who celebrated the dollar sign, and even though art and money have always, always been co-dependents. But can you imagine a sanctimonious pundit-novelist condemning the pop industry in the same terms he condemns the art world, for selling works for a mint and for “artistes” making a mint and buying big country houses? Not really.
Each work is a powerful modern memento mori
But ever since public galleries have been dealing with living artists, the relationship between public art institutions and commerce has been naturally symbiotic. Of course. Art prices rise when the artist has the kudos of a major show. We don't begrudge Grayson Perry lining his pockets and securing his reputation with a British Museum show, no less, but it just seems that we simply cannot bear for Hirst to make any more money. Enough. Enough already.
So between the hype and the backlash – which is not only predictable and stupid in its polarised extremities but which Hirst has enjoyed simultaneously almost from the beginning of his career – what can we seriously say about Hirst’s first major retrospective? What can we say, other than it feels less like a mid-career survey and more like an obituary? Yes, we’ve come not to praise him but to bury him. We haven’t, after all, been expecting Hirst to do anything new or interesting for years, for his best years are far, far behind and he could have exited stage left in 1991 and we might still be talking about those early works: A Thousand Years, 1990 (detail pictured next page), the stinking double-vitrine containing a cow’s severed head in a pool of congealed blood, and the hatching and feasting flies and an electrocutor; the shark (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) just a year later, which now looks oddly small, like visiting your old primary school; and, to a lesser degree, The Acquired Inability to Escape, 1991, the glass cage that simply contains an office chair and desk, a packet of fags, an ashtray and a lighter (pictured above). Each work is a powerful modern memento mori.
The first room presents us with a bunch of juvenilia, made just a year or two before Freeze, the YBA’s first self-curated show in 1988, and this all feels so hopeless that there’s little here that might tell us of the things to come. These include a row of painted pots and pans of various sizes hanging in a row, an empty MDF kitchen cupboard slathered thickly in bright-orange paint, and Hirst’s very first spot painting, painted in 1986. Unlike the later spot paintings, this one he painted himself and its drippy, gloopy surface betrays the artist’s cack-hand. There’s also What Goes Up Must Come Down, of 1994 (pictured right), the Jeff Koons-esque hairdryer-in-Plexiglas keeping a ping-pong ball bobbing aloft in the air. Even during Hirst’s greatest periods of creativity he really did some rubbish, among which, like the hairdryer, are the string of sausages in formaldehyde (1993), which we encounter a few rooms down. It shows a sense of humour, yes, but here the joke is an incredibly lame one.
Share this article
We at The Arts Desk hope that you have been enjoying our coverage of the arts. If you like what you’re reading, do please consider making a donation. A contribution from you will help us to continue providing the high-quality arts writing that won us the Best Specialist Journalism Website award at the 2012 Online Media Awards. To make a one-off contribution click Donate or to set up a regular standing order click Subscribe.
With thanks and best wishes from all at The Arts Desk
more Visual arts
Her obsession with death and decay was leavened by a wicked sense of humour
On the eve of a new exhibition of his kinetic saints, the artist talks about death, destruction and turning 50
The welcome return of the legacy of photographer Erwin Blumenfeld
Although only 7,500 Jews live in Poland, a space dedicated to their history has opened in the old Ghetto
The German artist plays with notions of the Romantic sublime
A thought-provoking exhibition looking at ways in which the state seeks to wield its influence
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top exhibitions
A deeply affecting survey of an artist who captures a sense of London as a living, breathing organism
The BBC tries to cover up its own history of uptight, anti avant-garde conservatism
Beguiling, mysterious and very Nordic: two Swedish painters in two knock-out solo shows
The great Czech pioneer of art nouveau has a pair of shows, one of them curated by Andy Murray's coach
The centenary of the British artist is marked with an array of his lesser-known and blandly genteel nudes