Damien Hirst @ Tate Modern

This is billed as a ‘huge’ show and a definitive retrospective. There’s no doubting the Young British Artists (YBAs) were a breath of fresh air when they broke through with the 1997 Sensation exhibition. Seeing the best work of Hirst, Emin, Lucas, Turk, Harvey, Quinn, the Chapman brothers and the others was tremendously exhilarating, comparable to the punk explosion of 1977.

But as they’ve grown older and fatter and richer and gone their separate ways that excitement has long since dissipated. This big Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern records the process whereby the early cheekiness, boldness and freshness of thinking has solidified into the reiteration of a few increasingly hackneyed themes, and a Dali-esque obsession with money for its own sake.

The catalogue says Hirst has deliberately cast his work into ‘series’ e.g. the pharmacy series of medical cabinets complete with pills and medicine boxes – and almost all the exhibits fall into five sets or types of work. Initially this idea seems cool, rather like writing a series of novels with the same characters, and encourages the pleasure of identifying which series works fall into and how the series have developed and grown. But it gets boring. However interesting the spot paintings might be in isolation or in other contexts, seeing a lot of them together is quickly boring. As the ‘pharmacy’ medicine cabinets get more opulent and elaborate – they get emptier. The series are:

  • Natural History i.e. animals in formaldehyde – shark, sheep, cut in half cow
  • Spot paintings: large, small etc
  • Spin paintings: large, small etc
  • Cabinets: full of pills or medical implements or cigarette stubs
  • Live animals: the vitrine with flies breeding on a sheep’s skull; the room full of live butterflies
  • Butterfly art: butterfly wings used to create wallpaper or stained glass type tryptyches

I wanted to like this exhibition but I wasn’t surprised to find it feeling increasingly decorative and empty.

The titles which seemed so silly, cheeky, irreverent at the start – The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living (1991) – later become laboured, a mannerism (Beautiful inside my head forever was the name Hirst gave to the epic sale at Sothebys of 244 new works back in 2008) or give way to a tired matter-of-factness – Black sheep is the title of a, er, black sheep in a tank of formaldehyde (2007).

Seems to me Hirst’s art is best seen in small doses, maybe mixed in exhibitions by other artists. All gathered together in one place they become samey and predictable – the exact opposite of the dazzlingly fresh impression he made all those years ago.

And the final rooms wallpapered with gold, lined with cabinets full of diamonds which remind us of the notorious skull covered in diamonds (the tiresomely titled For the Love of God), all this was dispiriting, reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s decline from boy wonder to money-mad eccentric.

The butterfly works are brilliant and completely empty.

Kaleidoscope VII, 2004, Butterfly-wings and household gloss on canvas

Related links

More Tate Modern reviews

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