fri 01/07/2022

Damien Hirst's Tate retrospective - why now? | reviews, news & interviews

Damien Hirst's Tate retrospective - why now?

Damien Hirst's Tate retrospective - why now?

A career survey seems both far too late and far too early for this master of chutzpah

Damien Hirst is finally getting his first UK retrospective in a public gallery next year, but the question seems to be, “Why now?” It seems both far too late and far too early, especially since Hirst has made no significant work in some years. That the Tate is organising it to coincide with the year of the Olympics, will, of course, be good for them: it will almost certainly see an unprecedented number of visitors, and tourists from around the world will flock to see it.

But there’s no getting away from the sense that this doesn’t feel so much as a mid-career retrospective but a YBA autopsy whose one compelling question seems to be: “Well, what was that all about?”

Undoubtedly Hirst is an important figure and should hardly be ignored, but Tate should have held a retrospective years ago. The fact that they didn’t shows as much about the power of Saatchi, and how Tate has danced in the taste-maker’s wake, than about good timing. Tate were desperate to do a retrospective almost a decade ago, but instead they were gazumped when Saatchi held on to the works and organised one at County Hall in 2003, the then home of the Saatchi Gallery.

Hirst was furious and dissociated himself from the exhibition (it doesn't appear on his CV), unhappy that he wasn’t consulted as to what works should go on show. He was apparently angry that a Mini he had decorated for charity with his trademark spots was being exhibited as a serious artwork. But it was about as “serious” as any of his other spot paintings, so what was really his gripe? It was probably more to do with two powerful art-world movers and shakers trying to wrest control. (Hirst eventually managed to buy back nearly a third of his early works, with Saatchi retaining a few key pieces, such as the 1991 shark (main picture), which the collector had provided the money to make.)

Hirst_painted_skullPerhaps it really is the time to assess the impact of Britart in the sober light of a recession-era Britain. But this won’t be that kind of show. Instead it will feel like some kind of wake for an artist who once made things happen – a skill that certainly shouldn't be dismissed - but can no longer pull it off in terms of his own career (and, of course, I don’t simply mean in terms of money: in 2008, just weeks after the Lehman Brothers’ collapse, and bypassing his own dealers, he sold a complete show at Sotheby’s for £111 million, an unprecedented amount for a living artist (pictured right: St Antony's Fire, one of the works sold at the auction Beautiful Inside My Head)).

It’s to do with the fact that he was never a brilliant artist in the first place, just more of a very talented project manager. You wonder where many of his YBA/Goldsmiths chums would have ended up had it not been for his chutzpah. It was Hirst, after all, who had the "do-it-yourself" drive to organise Freeze whilst still only a second-year student - a show that was seen by both Charles Saatchi and Tate director Nicholas Serota - and he was behind much of the early self-promotion. (Having said that, if Tate don’t show his Francis Bacon riff of the artist's George Dyer triptypch – three sheep enacting Dyer’s undignified end slumped on a toilet – then we won’t get fully acquainted with the best of Hirst’s black humour, and that would certainly be a shame.)

Hirst once famously said, "I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say 'fuck off'. But after a while you can get away with things."

He’s right. You can get away with an awful lot when you’ve got that much pull and power in the art world. Hirst himself always knew his limitations an an artist, and he could never quite believe his luck.

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Not significant pieces in the laste years? What about the Diamond Skull? Saatchi did NOT keep the Shark, he sold it in 2004. Do your homework

the skull was made 4 years ago, almost 5. that's a significant amount of time for someone like Hirst

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