Damien Hirst is a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, he is one of the most famous contemporary artists in the world. On the other hand, he is the first artist people choose to mock when discussing the absurdity of contemporary art. “How can a shark, in a tank, be Art?” they say. Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are the two popular artists who are automatically deemed ‘not good enough’ for an Art gallery. Ironically, both have had exhibitions in London recently (Emin’s at The Hayward Gallery) that show a full retrospective of their careers to critical acclaim. And in both cases, I loved the exhibitions. It seems that their popularity is not without reason.
I firmly believe that Art is much more than an attractive landscape or a modern, abstract painting. Art is about experience and how, for a moment, you can feel out-of-this-world. Art can be about changing your attitude to something or making a subtle, but important, point. The question is never “What Is Art?”, the question is whether it is worth your time and attention.
So it came as no suprise that Hirst is now exhibiting the first ‘substantial survey’ of his work so far at the Tate Modern. His ‘Untitled‘ dot-paintings from the late eighties through to the unforgettable ‘shark’ (aka The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) and his latest butterfly paintings from circa 2007. His work tackles death and the temporary nature of life. Cigarette’s stubbed out represent a ‘mini life-cycle’ according to the guide – and upon seeing cigarette-stub pieces in Crematorium and The Acquired Inability to Escape, one wonders whether these temporal fags mean much at all. Nevertheless, the clear theme is established and you begin to realise that temporal life, seems to be what every other art piece is about.
The use of dead animals is common in Hirst’s work and, upon visiting the gallery, I really felt drawn to the art that highlights our own attitude to death. A butterfly. A cow. A fly. A shark. They are (just) animals, like us. One has no more value than the other, does it? Maybe the splitting of a cow in Mother and Child shows the completely fascinating intricacies within a cow. Kandinsky compared the colour of green to a “cow chewing the cud”. He felt green was a dull colour and represented little. Are cows that dull? Maybe they are when “chewing the cud”, but perhaps the decapitated head of A Thousand Years changes this. It is almost horrific seeing this bloody head on the floor as flies slowly hover around the head – before their own timely fate in the Insect-O-Cutor above. So if we see shock and horror in the cows head – do we see the same about the insects dropping dead to the ground when hitting the blue-light? No? Why? A cow. A fly. Just animals.
The butterflies are not all dead. And, I am told, they are cared for and lead a very full life. As far as butterflies go. To have an exhibition piece, In and Out of Love, whereby butterflies hover around a room amongst paintings which are blank, surely highlights how death is not all doom and gloom. And some animals, really are, a thing of pure beauty. The butterfly images became more religious as they are displayed (deceased now and stuck-fast to a shaped canvas) to recreate what appears to be a stained-glass window in Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven. Beauty, faith and animal-life. Death is not confined to the formaldehyde solution in tanks.
Ironically, when you emerge from In and Out of Love, the attendants check that the butterflies have not joined you as you leave. I assume, if they find one, they put in back in the correct room. Then, as you stand, head a little busy from all the butterflies, you see The Pharmacy; a complete re-creation of a pharmacy. It is static and nothing moves. Lots of colour, but nothing natural. Indeed, everything is created – created to extend life? created to assist in life? It looks unnatural, especially as we know that in the room next door, butterflies hover around in wondrous beauty. The only ‘life’ in this room is you and the other gallery visitors. Now that is dull.
I really do believe Damien Hirst is an important artist and he does require your attention. This exhibition seems to cover his work and truly shows how – and why – he is an important British artist. A great exhibition that I hope Londoners – and Olympic visitors – will manage to see in the coming months.