Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

It’s very difficult to approach a Hirst show with an open mind, even when, like me, you’re not that well educated on the subject of contemporary art, so much has been written about him, by both those who think him a conceptual artistic genius, and those at the other extreme, who denounce him as a charlatan dedicated only to showmanship and the art of money making.

But I tried to keep my mind open nonetheless, especially as I’d never seen any of his work in the flesh before. And what a lot of flesh there is; as well as the sharks, fish, cows and birds in tanks of formaldehyde, there are flies feeding on carrion, and butterflies, both alive and dead. And dots. Lots of dots. And as many pills, and fag butts (that’s ‘cigarette stubs’ if you’re not a British English speaker).

The first spots paintings had a mesmeric quality; staring at them I found myself trying to make patterns and tracks around the canvas, but by the time I had seen the fourth or fifth one I had lost interest in the repetition. There’s an optimum size of both canvas and dot, and beyond that, I couldn’t find anything more to see in them.

The shark tank (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) stands in pride of place. I’d seen pictures of it, and had not known what to make of it, so it seemed important to examine it from all sides, to explore the fact that it is a three dimensional object. I liked the reflectivity of the surface, and the way light reflected through the tank, and that from certain angles it was possible to see multiple images of the shark. The creature itself look rather sad and dead; something about the frailty of life when taken out of its natural environment perhaps?

Er, no.

I read the gallery notes, and apparently it’s meant to evoke visceral fear in the observer.  It was probably then that it all started to go downhill.

I won’t bore you with any more about how repetitive the show is; repetition seems to be one of the themes. There’s clearly a production line somewhere: so long as there are people prepared to buy it, he’ll get someone to make it for you.

That’s not to say that the show didn’t raise some very interesting questions about the nature of art.  From it, I understand that Hirst produces Art because he, and the curators of Tate Modern, say that it he does.  And that, it seems to me, raises important ethical issues, especially where major publicly funded institutions essentially ‘bless’ the work of contemporary  living artists.  Do the great and the good on the Tate selection committee have a fundamental conflict of interest if they and there friends own works by the artist, the value of which will be significantly enhanced by the fact of it having been shown in the Tate?

And then there’s the morality of killing all of those flies and butterflies. A prominent feature of some of the installations is an insect-o-cutor – one of those blue lights that kills flying insects, usually found in food shops.  I don’t understand why it’s acceptable to breed creatures for the purpose of killing them in an art gallery.  If you can do it with flies, you might also do it with rabbits, or puppies, perhaps?  With a mallet or a buzz-saw instead of an insect-o-cutor?  Where would you draw that line?

There is one room in which butterflies and moths are flying around freely, and they are indeed beautiful – it has inspired me to plan a visit to see butterflies in a better, more natural environment.

And I have one final bone to pick.  All the other artists who have been given the privilege of doing something in the Turbine Hall have created a new, site specific installation.  For Hirst, a small box has been constructed which, apparently, houses the diamond encrusted skull he made a while ago.  I cannot confirm this, as it was closed when I went to see.

If you do visit the exhibition, please let me know what you think.

I think I was more interested in the hole they dug for the plinth than with what they stood in it.

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