Coming to the Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern is like coming to see the show you have already seen. Damien Hirst belongs to the collective memory of Britain. And that it is a great achievement for an artist. The maggots, dead or alive; the butterflies, dead or alive; the dots; the spin. The Shark is getting old, so are we.
It is very efficiently curated. It is like having a reunion with old friends. Although, they bite and suck. I suppose that is life.
The first room with his very early works are an interesting introduction to his career. Into the way he was testing the water and finding a way to make a stamp. The eight pans are rather sweet and you can see his first dot painting and his first cabinet: a kitchen cupboard. We all start with something.
The next room is when the heavyweights show their face. There you have A Thousand Years. A big vitrine containing maggots, dead and alive, a cow's head, maggots' eggs, blood, etc. You get the picture. It was made 22 years ago and is still as relevant as ever. The whole cycle of nature in a ready-made, self-contained structure is perfect for your living room. Damien brings death, and life, in an IKEA pack ideal for modern living. Apparently, when it was first exhibited at the Whitecube gallery in Hoxton, Francis Bacon was so overwhelmed by it that spent a whole afternoon watching it.
There is a video work: A Couple of Cannibals Eating a Clown (I should Coco) in collaboration with Angus Fairhurst that shows Hirst working in a different medium. I am glad he does not seem to have produced any more.
One of the installations I was very much looking forward to is: In and Out of Love. It consists of live butterflies that fly and move around a room with white paintings on which they are expected to hatch. And they do it with a bit of help. The Tate clearly states that a professional consultant has been hired: " in order to create a comfortable environment for the butterflies to live, from maintaining temperature levels to providing correct nutrition and plant life in the room". Good to know that. It is exquisitely beautiful and more palatable than A Thousand Years with the maggots, but groundbreaking on equal terms. You have no other option but to interact with the butterflies hoping that Damien will not grab you by the neck and sell you to Pinault as a limited edition of One.
With the use of animals and insects is when Hirst is at his best. He is pushing the legacy of the ready-made by Duchamp to a new level: insects as sculptures, as the ultimate ready-made. This is, perhaps, his biggest legacy to contemporary art.
Then, you see Pharmacy and many cabinets with legal drugs, the spin paintings, the dot paintings and back to the Shark. The real deal. It is getting old and it looks less menacing. The 90s are gone. Boom came and bust followed. It is so wonderful that an artwork seems to mature and to age in a such a graceful manner.
The show continues with a series of bling installations and the diamond skull. Austerity has not arrived to Devon, where Damien is based, yet.
It is about time that Hirst gets a well-deserved retrospective at a major British institution. The Tate Modern is the perfect place. They have done a good job. Go and see it by yourself without the spin and the media interfering. You might even enjoy it, but, remember, please exit through the gift shop.
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