Exhibition review: Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern
I can make sense of Hirst’s exhibition on the premise that he wants to make the mortal and ephemeral, lasting and timeless. Dead animals that would have normally lasted a few weeks are suspended in formalin, and will remain there for as long as we keep the piece. Pills that last a swallow and cigarette that are smoked in a puff are protected from their final fate by being locked away in the cabinets.
Hirst uses the living and “once lived” in an aesthetic attempt. This is an important aspect, because it does confront you with the nature of being: your inside is something like this –as gory as it might seem-, it questions: how superficial is your sense of beauty?- Stimulants, Mother and child (divided), directly expose you with the inner structure of the animals, and even The physical impossibility […] and The Kingdom (sharks suspended in formalin) have the effect that visitors incline to see inside the mouth of a shark, or to see how they look underneath, awaking our most basic sense of curiosity that is what drives science.
A turn to this comes with the anatomical ready-made in the vitrines (so and so), which are glorified in the 6 mt. tall Hymn, a bronze replica of one of such anatomical models (ready-made as the rest of the items in the pharmacies), and the Anatomy of an Angel, which demystifies an otherwise classic type of sculpture by showing an angel as any other creature with inner organs.
All these pieces question our notions of beauty, and of transcendence, which are reinforced by A Thousand Years, a magnificent installation that is biologically dynamic and shows the process of decomposition of a cow’s head, albeit not in an isolated manner, but in its trophic interaction with a stock of living flies.
Actually, guts and dead and rotting animals did not disturb me. Although in the beginning they attracted me, they didn’t raise a particular interest after a second look. The reason perhaps, is that they are too obvious, and little is left to be questioned or interpreted. Sure: there is death, its meaning and all the classic dilemma, approached from a perspective that is more biological than spiritual or philosophical. Admittedly, this is a substantial advance, although Hirst is hardly pioneering the subject.
On the other hand, the simplicity of Hirst’s ideas is one of the elements that makes Hirst’s art interesting, which is something that also applies to the rest of the exhibition, not only to organic media. As in everything in art, there is a fine balance between the intention and the representation. Hirst manages to confront us with basic ideas in such a way that we can relate immediately, either negatively with a sense of disgustingness and rejection (carcasses), or positively with a sense of beauty (butterflies arranged in harmonious ways Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven, Sympathy in White Major, or even alive In and Out of Love). In fact, these two ways of relating to Hirt’s art evoke our instinctive emotions for life and death: we accept life and we reject death in a natural way.
But there is also another turn to this dichotomy, perhaps in a more subtle way: the use of flies (dead as in Black Sun and alive as in A Thousand Years) which in the classic imagery of the still life represents evil or death, versus a white dove with spread wings (The Incomplete Truth), which we clearly relate in Christian tradition as the holy spirit. These elements are also addressing the fundamental subject much explored in classic and modern art of good and evil, or heaven and hell.
Art & Science.
Hirst employs techniques for the morgue and from the lab in order to build certain pieces. But all this could equally be Art & Butchery, Art & Fisheries, Art & Phamacy. However, Hirst uses creatures with which, again, he intends to evoke in us the basic instincts about life and death. Cows and sharks are perfect examples of these two extremes. Yet, does the use of these methods make his art, science? If they do, it is science as in school, not as in the lab of a research institute, or as in Celera Genomics. We might call this superficial (many do). Even if that might be the case, Hirst’s installations brings us back to the most basic element of what science is about: it makes you question about facts and processes of the natural world (as is the transition from life to death, discussed in several of Hirst’s pieces). And this is the core of what science is: questioning and understanding by observation. Hence, it is not the methods that he is using what make the intersection with science, it’s the purpose what does it. The methods are inevitably needed by the nature of the organic medium he is using.
Video art and pop.
The exhibition contains a series of videos that have been produced or directed by Hirst. These are very varied in their style and nature. Whilst the older videos have an artistic nature, addressing subjects such as accidents or suicide, the later ones have a focus that demands not an artistic audience but a pop audience.
In general lines, the exhibition was kind of repetitive. Nearly every room has dot paintings, dot paintings, and also some other dot paintings. The monotony of these gave me the feeling of the lack of development of the ideas of the dots and pills (which are not unrelated pieces, as the dot paintings bear chemical names of pharmaceuticals). Also the organisms suspended in formalin are recursive. Together, the dots, pills and animal suspensions dominate the exhibition. But you do find a much wider range of pieces.
Often, the use of colour stroked me as exaggerated and unnecessary, giving the feeling of being in a circus (spinning paintings, Loving in a World of Desire, Boxes, and even the pills), which was only reinforced by his video A Couple of Cannibals Eating a Clown. Although in the dot paintings and the butterfly pieces achieve a more balanced color harmony.
Hirst manages to challenge your idea of what art is. Ai Wei Wei comes to my mind; he said that Art is about an attitude.
This is why what Hirst does is art.