Fundamental to most people’s resistance to modern art – the ‘well I could have done that at home’ brigade - is a fear that they’re being ‘had’.
Fundamental to modern art convincing people they’re not being ‘had’ is when it moves them emotionally, creates an atmosphere they don’t forget, or when it simply shocks them.
Damien Hirst, the most famous artist in Britain, got to this ludicrous point – millions in the bank, a retrospective at the country’s premier modern art gallery, a role as our cultural Olympiad for heaven’s sake – by shocking us, a few times, 20 or so years ago. But what his retrospective really proves is that by elevating him to this degree we’ve been ‘had’ all along.
An ill-conceived layout takes you through 10 or so rooms housing his work, past the ‘iconic’ pieces – animals in formaldehyde, lots of paintings of spots - and leads you, via awkwardly leaving the exhibition space and going down to the Turbine Hall, to an absurd moment of theatre.
Inside a near pitch-black room, flanked by two security guards, is his diamond-encrusted skull. It’s an enjoyable moment of self-parody (one would hope) from an artist more synonymous with ostentatiousness than anything else, but does little to compensate for what goes before.
Hirst only seems to have two subjects: death, and himself. This collection of 20 years' worth of work illuminates neither of them in any truly satisfying way.
Seeing the so-called iconic works is like spotting celebrities on Oxford Street. There is a momentary thrill of recognition, before that collapsing moment when you realise they’re just people.
The cow split in the middle and encased in formaldehyde is just a cow. You can see its innards – all quite stomach-churning actually – which is quite interesting in a scientific, Natural History Museum-sort of way. But so what?
Hirst takes one half-interesting idea and does it to death. His first medicine cabinet – Sinner – is repeated 10 times, each named after a song from the album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols. Other critics have pointed out in the past that the most interesting thing about Hirst’s work is often the titles. No wonder he identifies with The Sex Pistols – they were all style and no substance too.
So much of what’s on display is so juvenile, you can process what he’s alluding to and how he’s done it without breaking your stride. Do stop – to look at a line of raw sausages in a case, for example – and you find yourself coming back time and again to one question: is this really the very best of what our flagship artist has created? In 20 years?
There are some good moments. A Thousand Years – Hirst’s box full of flies swarming around a cow’s head – is atmospheric in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of way. But there is nothing, beyond another blunt statement about death, to engage with here. And I felt a little sorry for the flies.
A later room recreates his In and Out of Love installation from 1991. In a humid, yellow-hued room, a 100 or so butterflies flutter lazily around some potted plants and bowls of fruit. It’s beautiful, but the beauty is all nature’s, not Hirst’s. And I felt a little sorry for the butterflies.
On and on it goes – cases full of cigarette butts, paintings created by pouring paint over spinning canvases, beach balls hovering over vents – until the final room. Here, we get more cases, this time full of diamonds instead of pills, all set against garish glittery wallpaper. Again, it’s an attempt to satirise his own public image, but in the most obvious and boring way you could dream of.
I didn’t go wanting to Hirst-bash. I went hoping to be reminded that, before all the celebrity and the backlash, he had something interesting to say, and that in a year when he’s competing for ticket sales with Hockney and Freud he’d make a case for why his style of modern art isn’t just a sham. I left no more convinced of Hirst as an artist than I was before.
Pictures from the show: