Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Damien Hirst Restrospective - fun and fantasy at the Tate

When you go to a Damien Hirst exhibition, you are full of all sorts of expectations, good and bad, as, of course, his fame and notoriety precedes him to such an extent.  Indeed, you can take something from that, something very Damien Hirst.  Yes, a lot of expectation.  So what do you actually get?  Well the first room, his early works, was fairly uninteresting.  Cooking pots painted and hung on the wall, well..., photo of him with some poor mans dead head, nice..., his first spot painting, and reading the little guide you get given, once I was back at home, was something called 'Boxes', which was so astounding in its artistic power that it completely passed me by.

How to make a shark tank
How to make a shark tank
Ok, so I'm not particularly a fan of the 'art' of Damien Hirst, but that is not to say that he hasn't made some great things.  So we move on the second and third rooms that basically show Hirst in his entirety.  The shark, the spot paintings, the dead cows head with flies, the shelves of tablets.  For anything more, you have to go to some of the other rooms where you will find, as expected, halved cows/calfs, a sheep or two, another shark, a dove which is absolutely cliché-tastic.  You get the pharmacy stuff, various different displays of pills and packets etc., all very boring, a giant ashtray 'crematorium' which is tedious school boy fantasy art, the kind of thing you laugh about with your mates when sneaking out of school for a quick smoke when you should be doing something else, but you never actually make the giant ashtray because, well, you realise that the idea is the thing, and the thing isn't the idea.  I thought the shelves of fish would be good, but given that their colours have been all but lost, again, pretty boring to look at, just a collection for no adequate reason.  Similarly, more collections of pills, of surgical instruments and teaching aids, which struck me as the kind of collection you might make when you have the money to do it but no reason to do it, a couple of floaty ball things (naff and boring if you're not 6), and spin paintings which were so dull they brought tears to my eyes.  I'm sure even he realised this which is why he had one of them spinning round on the wall (or was it both of them?  It hardly matters), and made them as big as he possibly could, "got to give the punters something to talk about," I can imagine him saying, "there not going be fooled for long if they're static and only a few feet wide."

You see, what you get with Damien Hirst is a whole load of stuff.  He professes an obsession with death.  Indeed, he is quoted on the wall of the gallery as wanting to bring death into the space to 'provoke a profound primal fear'.  But that is not what you get.  What you get with the shark, is two impressive things: the shark itself, and the cabinet it's in.  And at no point is there a primal fear involved.  How could there be?  The cabinet is so strongly made, so overtly engineered that the barrier between you and the dead beast is as insurmountable as that between our little sun and Alpha Centaury, so any possible fear one might have is completely lost.  When you see it, you are first impressed by its size, then the interesting bending of light as you walk around it and the prism effect of the liquid within gives you differing views.  Then you enjoy the shark itself, as you would.  It's a massive shark for gods sake!  It's cool, it really is!  But you don't get death, not in any way.  What you do get is dead.  And you get dead again with the cows head, you get dead with the other cows/calfs/sheep/shark/dove.  It's dead, over and over.  No exploration, no understanding, the pure laziness of his 'art' is quite astonishing; the concept that all you have to do is exhibit something to have it mean something is arrogant in the extreme.  It is a fashion, I know, and it is not limited to Hirst, and of course because some people think it's rubbish it must actually be great art etc. etc.  But no.  There are those critics that fall over themselves to marvel at his Svengalian objet d'art, and those that keep a little more quiet, or try to see it as art.  Don't listen to any of them.  If there is a group of people any where who know less than the average punter it is those self same critics.  Once someone achieves a modicum of success, however they manage it, and they are lucky enough to have the collectors move in, then money is involved, real money, and critics seem to see it almost as their duty to take sides.  They move in like blinded vultures, scrabbling around for whatever they can find, eating off each other if necessary, because you can't ignore money, Hirst certainly got that one right.

How to make a spot painting
How to make a spot painting
So what else is there?  Well, there is the butterfly stuff.  The stained glass window designs are really nice, but again, there's no interpretation or exploration, just pretty butterfly windows.  There's the butterfly room itself, with live butterflies from the pupae on the canvases.  And just like the shark, what you get here is not 'life', but alive, just stuff that is alive, just like any butterfly tunnel you can go in up and down the country.  "But it's in an art gallery," I here you cry, "so it's art, isn't it?"  All I can say to that is believe it if it makes you happy, but really, saying something is true doesn't make it true.

So in the end, you have a whole load of stuff, none of which has been explored to any great extent, some of which hasn't been explored to any extent at all.  They are decorative, or shocking the first time you see them.  But that's it.  The spin paintings are about spinning a canvas and chucking paint on it.  The sharks are about "wow a shark... look!".  The ashtray is like that crazy-glue conversation you had for hours one night when stoned at a party.  The floaty ball thing?  - what you talked about after you got bored of the crazy-glue conversation.  The mini floaty ball thing with a ping-pong ball and hairdryer, art?  Really?  The dead flies in resin, the shelves and shelves of pills and cubic zirconia that are so devastatingly dull they even resorted to describing the materials that the shelving units were made from in an effort to liven things up a bit.  They reminded me of some of the terrible art from the seventies that either assumed you had no brain, or you would believe whatever you were told, or they didn't care one way or the other because communicating with any kind of language that meant someone without an in-depth knowledge of art history could understand surely meant that all you could do was paint figurative landscapes or portraits, instead of trying a little harder and doing what an artist is meant to, finding a way to communicate directly with their audience without the need for explanation.  The problem is, once you need to explain why something is art, and what it means, the art is gone, or perhaps it was never there.  Art is meant to communicate.  If it doesn't, it is not art.  Maybe the explanations become the art?  Maybe Hirst's shark should have been put on the wall as the label that describes its title?  Maybe.

But after all that, yes, after all that, I left with a smile on my face.  The spot paintings were the closest he came to any form of actual art, any thing in the show that attempted to grapple with something that required the artsist to actually think, to make decisions, to put forward a point of view thereby at least making an attempt to transcend the physical object to a state where it connects to other human beings, communicating something of what it is to be alive, to be human.  But even then, the most interesting thing about them is the idea, the concept.  Their reality is ultimately a let down, as is proven by your passage through the show when they turn up time and time again, and each time they get a little less interesting, a little more the same, a little less... anything at all.  And of course, we all know that he didn't paint them anyway, so he firmly pins his flag to the mast of conceptionist, designer, leaving any possible artistry to his underlings.

There is a poverty of imagination here, and almost no art at all.  But there is entertainment akin to watching a blockbuster movie, Die Hard or something similar.  It is fun and fantasy, but ultimately vacuous, like a lot of art today.  Would I go to another Damien Hirst exhibition?  Sure I would.  Great fun.  And I might even take my kids.  But I wouldn't pay £15.50 for the privilege.

Art 0.5/10
Entertainment 7.5/10
Aesthetics 6/10

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