Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate Modern was not on my list of things to see. His notoriety and abundance in the media made me feel as if there was not much left to discover – my precious hours would be better spent in a small, obscure gallery unearthing some diamonds-in-the-rough.
But I went. And was pleasantly surprised. The great thing about it is you just look. There isn’t any need to think. His ideas – a lot of, but not all, his pieces are conceptual, i.e. it is the message not the form that matters – are not that profound or revolutionary. The subject of death’s inevitability and inescapability is a rather hackneyed one. But prevalent in his works that feature animal cadavers and enclosed spaces – A Thousand Years is a particularly blood-thirsty work in which a severed cow’s head stains the wooden floorboards with viscous ooze and flies in their thousands buzz around or perish in a mass grave: fascinating from an anatomical point of view. How often does one get to inspect the inside of a cow’s head?
Anatomy and medicine are things that Hirst has sustained a long-term curiosity with. Besides the dead and dissected animals, his medicine cabinets full of over the counter meds and surgical tools, and shelves full of coloured pills – sweetie, anyone? – made me wonder whether Hirst’s foremost dream was to be a scientist. His coloured dot paintings were created out of a desire to create art methodically and logically, stationing himself as the artist as far away from the work as possible – the most rudimentary aim of lab experiments.
It may not be pretty, but one must give Hirst credit for the labour of love and patience involved in the smoking and accumulation of the gazillion cigarette butts needed to fill a paddling pool sized ashtray – Crematorium (1996) – and many more regular sized ones.
A diametric opposite to these displays of decay is In and Out of Love, a.k.a. the Butterfly room. The idea is genius. A humidified room houses white canvases onto which pupae are painted and out of which hatch… butterflies! The reality is an overly bright cell of languid winged insects, drunk on sugar and barely making it off the leaves or out of the fruit bowl. It reminded me of the obesity epidemic. More beautiful was the “mirror image” of the butterfly room, and second part of In and Out of Love: coloured canvases stuck with dead butterflies.
A personal and very much overlooked highlight is a black and white photograph of the young Hirst, With Dead Head. Just Damien and a dead man’s head.
Hirst’s retrospective is accessible, fun and colourful – I don’t think I have ever seen so many kids at the Tate. Good on him for inciting an interest in art and enticing the little tykes away from Facebook for a couple of hours. The diamond skull is also on display at the Tate in the Turbine Hall. Entry is rather like going to a nightclub. The fun is inside a big black box, there are bouncers and long queues are a given.
Until 9th September. Entry is a whopping £14.