Saturday, 2 June 2012

Damien Hirst: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Louisa Stark
image source: Daily Telegraph
Everyone, it would seem, has an opinion on Damien Hirst.  The most controversial artist of this generation has been adored and disparaged, in equal measure. I have to admit feeling no such vehemence towards his work – only a vague distaste for anything fetching so much money, as well as an undeniable attraction towards the aesthetic beauty of his butterfly paintings, which inspired a recent project of my own. Despite having seen countless familiar reproductions on my computer screen, I have never, as I suspect is true for countless other people, seen his work (for some pieces, quite literally) in the flesh. So I decided to go along to the Tate Modern to form my own judgement: modern genius or morbid maniac?
Firstly, I viewed the free-admission aspect of the exhibition – ironic considering it was his notorious diamond encrusted skull.  Whilst outside the small black room in turbine hall in which it was encapsulated, I couldn’t help but think of Mecca, surrounded by pilgrims queuing to catch a glimpse of the idol inside.  It was very dark, almost hazardously so, intensifying the dazzling glares radiating from the centre of the room.  I had never been so close to so many diamonds before and the effect was mesmerising.  Aptly named For the Love of God, it held its viewers transfixed by what modern society has come to worship – not religion but money.
My favourite works in the exhibition were the beautiful and kaleidoscopic Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II and I Am Become Death – The Shatterer of all Worlds, consisting of precisely arranged butterfly wings on household gloss paint which filled the wall with stunning designs as intricate as stained glass windows.  Still awe-struck, I entered the next room to find an enormous, textured, black circle, Black Sun, and, curious as to the material, I stepped closer and discovered that the entire surface was made up of dead flies. The juxtaposition was startling; a concept I’d found myself marvelling at now disgusted me.  Within a few paces I’d been simultaneously enchanted and repelled by death – Hirst at his most masterful. 
Yet other aspects of the exhibition were less compelling.  


image source: coventry telegraph
Continuous rows of medicine cabinets and colour-coordinated pills I found not only unskilful but also dull and predictable.  Compared to his vast, overwhelming shark in a tank called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living which, when faced head-on,  produced a feeling of irrational fear, I experienced no emotion except mild boredom standing in the installation Pharmacy.  Although Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology was an interesting concept based on a Holy Trinity founded in science, its execution was weak; the models, taken straight out of a biology classroom, showed no evidence of the artist’s hand, leaving it (for me) devoid of the integrity of his famous spot paintings, for example.
The penultimate room glittered with diamonds and gold; everything Hirst had created before was now collected together, but bright with money.  Pills were replaced by diamonds in mirror-backed cabinets, spot paintings with gold-leaf backgrounds, butterflies and diamonds strewn haphazardly on gold paint, the transformation mirroring the artist’s own rise to riches. Highly conscious of this being a collection created primarily for sale at Sotheby’s, I found the overall effect distasteful, bordering on the vulgarity of his fly pictures.
So, upon exiting through a heavily laden gift shop, I still had mixed feelings about Damien Hirst.  At times, I wondered what all the fuss is about. At others I was surprised by some of the most strikingly clever works of design I have ever seen. Whatever people may say about him, the enormous power of Hirst’s work to attract crowds and controversy will undeniably leave its mark in the modern world about which he is so perceptive.  For an artist supposedly fixated with death, Hirst’s exhibition was, on the whole, a vibrant and even life-affirming experience, worthy of all the praise and criticism which comes his way.

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