Damien Hirst’s “retrospective” is on at Tate Modern, covering his work from early installations to current paintings, collages, and more.  Runs from 4 April – 9 September 2012

Lots of dead things

Boy am I glad I have a Tate Member pass, because I wouldn’t have gone to see the show if it wasn’t included in the money I’d already paid. Throughout the show I was bothered. It took a little while to figure out just why I was bothered by this artist’s work, with an almost instant feeling of irritation/annoyance… Backing up a bit, I always try to find SOMETHING in EVERY exhibit that “speaks to me”, feels resolved, or just plain “works”. I guess Hirst’s work then is successful, if it provoked any reaction at all (in my case, as I said, I became increasingly annoyed with every room).

However, I liked this one and thought the juxtaposition of the angel with the butterfly “stained glass” pieces particularly fitting. Really lovely, both of them (even though Hirst didn’t actually MAKE either one, the idea is what makes the art here?)

Damien Hirst, ‘Anatomy of an angel’, 2008, marble. Image courtesy flickr.com

In no particular order, here are five problems with Hirst’s work:

1. Repetitive. There’s the dead shark I’ve read about (the $12million one). And a rack of dead fish. Dead sheep. Dead calf. Dead calf and dead cow. Dead cow’s head with flies, both living and dead. OK we get it, you find dead things fascinating. *yawn* You could’ve made that point with one spectacular piece …the shark maybe?…which would’ve had a lot more impact/interest as a singular art object and if the artist had actually thought more about the content when he merely gave us the form, an empty shell essentially, that if you cracked the shell and spent more than a few seconds looking at it, you’d see nothing there.  Of course, it’s difficult for those with the strongest stomachs to spend more than a few seconds on the rotting carcass of a dead animal. In that few seconds, then, is an amazing piece of art.

one of Hirst's dead stuff peices. YAWN! Image courtesy darkroom.baltimoresun.com
one of Hirst’s dead stuff peices. YAWN! Image courtesy darkroom.baltimoresun.com

2. Speaking of dead things. I think the dead thing used to be cool when I was 12. Check that — it’s still cool in the context of a natural history or science museum.   I don’t see what beyond the science-y object Hirst brings to the world by putting it in an art gallery instead of a museum. Just because he can?

3. Seen that, been there, done that.  Sure, a lot of artists “appropriate” (sample, allude to, reproduce) but I think the key thing is to bring something new to the equation… a new way of thinking, a new perspective, a challenge… for me, Hirst does none of that; he just hits you in the head with “I have a lot of money/influence in the art world so anything with my name on it is art/worthy/a blockbuster so pppbbbbthhh!

Image courtesy tate.org.uk
Image courtesy tate.org.uk

4. Speaking of, haven’t I seen that before? So mid-way through the exhibit, after wading through rooms of medicines, surgical instruments, dead animals and cigarette butts, I said to my friend (the trained psychologist), “So in your line of work, you must’ve worked with more than a few folks with…errmm…issues or obsessions, or compulsive behaviours such as collecting stuff or hoarding… does this guy have a problem or what?” Without a blink, she commented that clearly Hirst is only putting it on, that is, he’s pretending to have obsessive/compulsive behaviours, that he’s mimicing these behaviours and trying to convince others he’s “got a problem”…when he really doesn’t.  Just have a second look, think for more than a second, and there’s simply no evidence of a real psychosis…only a fake one.  It’s all made up, fake, a facade.

5. Why? So if it’s all made up, these obsessions and compulsions…then why go through all that trouble? The answer from Hirst himself, as quoted by Julian Stallabrass who quotes Hirst as saying as early as 1990, before he had made his big breakthrough:

“I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘f off’. But after a while you can get away with things.” 

The key thing then as I was going through the exhibit, that I finally put my finger on, was I felt hoodwinked.  Tricked. Laughed at (with derision not because I’m funny).  Looking into someone’s psychotic mind is intriguing and engaging (case in point, Kusama’s exhibit the next floor up). Looking into someone’s pretend psychotic mind is annoying, especially when that person won’t show you anything else but this made-up character, and won’t show you anything real, and won’t engage with the viewer.

Hirst would rather flash you with bright lights, hit you over the head and slither away with his bag of money while you’re reeling.  The exhibit was like watching a really badly written one-man play, with no plot, no context, where the main character pretends to be an artist, but instead of being himself, he plays the kind of artist he assumes you the viewer expect and want to see, arrogant and self-indulgent. *boring*

Damien HIrst, 'Black Sun', 2004, flies and resin. Image courtesy damienhirst.com
Damien HIrst, ‘Black Sun’, 2004, flies and resin. Image courtesy damienhirst.com

Complaints aside, you’ve got to hand it to Hirst for making a living as something we’ll call “artist” (for the purposes of this text) when so many artists have to have one or more OTHER “real jobs” just to eat and pay rent.  The real shame is that a lot of these baristas and PAs are really skilled and talented people with something real or really important to offer the world, who despite their best efforts won’t ever make a living making art.

Maybe I’ll feel better by referring to Hirst as an entrepreneur in the capitalist sense, because from the start, he figured out how to make a name for himself and capitalise on that name early and often.  I, too, would love to figure out how to sell tat with exhorbitant mark-up prices, and become a multi-millionare along the way.

Damien Hirst, ‘For the Love of God’, 2007, diamonds, platinum and human teeth. Image courtesy wikipedia.com

(£20 for a blank notebook with this STICKER on the front. Really?? Wait… GENIUS!!)

I guess the only way to really make a multi-million-pound living making art is to make an a*se of yourself. At least you get to be an a*se with a big bank account… hmmm…

More information

Exhibition details: Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, Southwark, London runs from 4 April – 9 September 2012, paid entrance.