I thought I knew Damien Hirst. The one who puts dead animals in formaldehyde. Made a skull of diamonds. Did some things with coloured dots. Made me think: "Modern art? Rubbish. Anyone could do that." Well, turns out I was wrong. The current Tate Modern retrospective has changed my mind - and made me something of a fan in the process.
We begin with those dots accompanied by some similarly coloured pots and pans. The roots of his iconic work, yes, and a little underwhelming but soon it starts to make more sense.
I studied biology before preferring more creative endeavours and his exploration of science nature, and humanity to some extent, through art, made perfect sense to me in a way I hadn't seen in his work until now.
In the second room the dots take on an almost scientific appearance. Clinical in their uniformity and looking a bit like lab test results.
Thankfully I hadn't got Hirst completely wrong; some of his work can still be audacious. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable, like 'A Thousand Years' where maggots hatch, become flies, feed off a rotting cows head and either become electrocuted or get to complete their natural life cycle in this artificial setting.
It, literally, stank but there is something fascinating and almost educational about it. We forget about things of wonder like how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly but he devotes a whole room to its magic. In 'In and Out of Love' you enter a humid environment filled with plants while chrysalises hang on canvases and butterflies float about you, and onto you, as we found on leaving when we had to liberate an inadvertent stowaway.
Then it's straight into another land, resembling a pharmacy. The "Is this art?" thought pops into your head when you think that you can walk down your high street and see similar but by putting it in a gallery it challenges your take on modern medicine. When you're overwhelmed by boxes and jars of pills and potions you consider the time, energy and money that goes into preserving life when, as Hirst says, "they're going to die anyway." This is particularly powerful following the rooms of played out-life cycles and leaves you thinking about hope and futility and where human beings fit into it all. It's a deeper message than I ever imagined taking from his art.
Some of Hirst's earlier medicine cabinets brought back memories, seeing the old packaging for things like Optrex eye wash. Yes, you can think that anyone could do this and you had a cabinet just like it at home in the '80s but as my companion R pointed out, no one else had done it. It preserves a moment in time. Plus all the cabinets were arranged around ailments of the body and wittily named, like 1989's 'No Feelings', full of painkillers.
I'd wager most people have seen pictures of Hirst's animals preserved in tanks. Mark Hix recently commissioned one for his new restaurant, Tramshed, so his diners can enjoy a preserved cow with a cockerel sat atop, while they eat their beef or chicken.
I really didn't get them. I'd thought them a bit sensational but then I hadn't seen one in the flesh. Until you're up close I don't think you can appreciate the work that must have gone into it. Take 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living'. This is the one of the open-mouthed shark, suspended in formaldehyde. Big scary shark. So what? But it is perfectly preserved in the clearest liquid and looks as though it's magically floating in mid aid, which must have taken some doing.
Seeing a creature from my nightmares (I blame Steven Spielberg), with jaws open, ready to attack, yet immobilised behind glass, frozen in a moment, is a strange, eerie thing and the title is particularly apt.
Some of Hirst's works are surprisingly physically appealing, like The Spin Paintings of burst colour but I absolutely fell in love with the room featuring his take on stained glass windows. They looked serene and vibrant but then on closer inspection you see that they're made up of the wings of dead butterflies. You want to feel aghast and yet it's a thing of beauty.
The latter rooms feature the bling version of his earlier work, with manufactured diamonds replacing pills and lashings of gold. We were keeping our eye out for the famous diamond skull 'For the Love of God' but it was in the Turbine Hall and not clearly signposted so we missed it, unfortunately, which did make me want to scream 'For the love of...' when I found out.
I was less impressed with the bling phase which seemed a bit of a sell out and not as intelligent as his earlier creations but I may have been influenced knowing that for this collection Hirst went direct to the market via Sotheby's rather than use a gallery to sell hundreds of new works. A shrewd businessman as well as a thought-provoking artist. Damien Hirst, I'm a new devotee.
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