Damien Hirst at Tate Modern by Nasri Shah ends 9 September 2012
Damien Hirst is no stranger to controversy. Synonymous with the spectacles of dismembered lambs and preserved sharks (amongst many others), this terrible enfant of the Young British Artists fame in the 1990s has gained credence for his talented use of the scalpel knife in his works, perhaps more so than the paintbrush. Yet 24 years on from his debut as a budding Goldsmiths student in the 1988 exhibition Freeze, one wonders how the once reputed shock of Hirst’s works now represents anything more than the blunt end of an emergent British household icon. In this migratory move of his works from the margins to the very institution of the contemporary British art world, what therefore becomes compelling in his retrospective is not so much the shock that the displayed works provide, but the outlets that the Tate readily provides for the audience to be shocked.
Not that such a move would be deemed contentious; on the contrary, today’s society thrives on the challenges of the modern spectacle. The exhibition itself is founded on this notion- the curatorship lives up to the legends cultivated by tales of Hirst’s adventures in the mortuary and the auction room. In doing so, the exhibition succeeds in that it fails to disappoint the viewer looking to be reviled and fascinated by the occasional carcass and diamonds dotting the exhibition. Audiences no longer unwittingly find themselves at the mouth of the famed preserved shark in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living- they deliberately lead themselves to it.
Such a fixed conception of Hirst’s works, however, appears to undermine the variability of life and death that he very often sets up in his works. Our continued fascination with the orgy of flesh and blood which emerges in installations like A Thousand Years speak not necessarily to our desire of be shocked, but rather to our desire of the unknowable. It is this ambiguity which resides around processes of death and decay that prevail beyond Hirst’s otherwise controlled set-ups: the expanding geometry of the pool of blood in A Thousand Years, for instance, or escaping butterflies in In and Out of Love.
Still, the irony of Hirst dictating the audience on the transience of life and death in his works is apparent in an exhibition that otherwise seeks to memorialize the artist’s career. What seeks to come across as an invasive display of surgical objects in all shapes and sizes in Trinity instead resembles a mass produced line of prototypes. Similarly, Hirst’s investigation of diamonds in the impressively luxurious penultimate display Beautiful Inside My Head Forever overwhelms instead of provokes. It is here that the retrospective falls short- instead of building each work upon the other, the works in each room now appear to compete with one another owing to the spectacular character of each work. Hirst’s minimalist spot paintings, for instance, are betrayed by their own flatness when placed next to his dynamically proportioned installations.
Nevertheless, each work retains its magnificence owing to the attention surrounding each one. Undeniably, the show will prove a big hit amongst museum visitors and both current and future owners of Hirst’s works. What is unclear, however, is how Hirst will develop hereafter. Having caught the attention of Charles Saatchi as a graduate, Sotheby’s as a mid-career artist and now the Tate at his prime, which platform will he appear on next? Amidst the instability of the global political and financial system, it is only time before the reality of today permeates the seemingly timeless stratosphere of Hirst’s magnificent and extravagant world.
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