If there was an artist that could perfectly emulate our masturbatory (that is self-indulgent), consumerist and commercial culture, then Damien Hirst is it. As the quarter century approaches since he provocatively and uncompromisingly burst onto the art scene in 1988 with the now infamous exhibition Freeze, Hirst has been responsible for inordinately changing the look, the meaning, but perhaps most saliently, the value, of art.
Best known for his iconic diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007), which reportedly cost an enormous £14 million to produce; his largely assistant-produced spot and butterfly paintings; and his macabre penchant for suspending various pickled animals in formaldehyde, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), Hirst has created some of the most recognisable and expensive works in contemporary art to date. However, his notoriety has invited reverence and revilement in equal measure. He has been criticised for creating works specifically with hedge fund or celebrity clientele in mind, and thus depreciated artistic value in favour of cash appeal. Although his artworks have become highly sought-after collectables, it is more for their association with Hirst as a celebrity artist, than their desirability as thought-provoking pieces of art; as Brian Sewell has written recently: “to own a Hirst is to tell the world that your bathroom taps are gilded and your Rolls Royce is pink.”
This association with money and excess came to a climax back in 2008, when Hirst made the unprecedented move to bypass his long-standing galleries, and auction off an entire show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever at Sotheby’s. In a pivotal moment in the history of the global art market, it exceeded all predictions, raising a record-breaking £111 million and has since redefined the commodity value of the art piece.
Yet, Hirst’s prioritisation of money has truly come at a price, as his oeuvre has been characterised by financial exchange, both by money spent on production and price reached at sale, rather than artistic merit. This has also been aggravated by contentions to Hirst’s legitimacy as an artist. His career has been weighed down by various accounts of plagiarism throughout the years, and his controversial methods of artistic production have been constantly contested. Hirst employs huge teams of fixed-wage assistants in production-line studios (a sort of ‘Haus of Hirst’) that are ultimately responsible for the actual creation of his art. This has sparked consistent critical debate, and caused many to question the authenticity of his works.
Nevertheless, his shows continue to sell out and his highly collectable and exorbitant priced artworks confirm that no matter the creative process, Hirst is unquestionably one of the most renowned and commercially successful British artists working today. So, when the Tate Modern revealed that they would be hosting the first major survey of Damien Hirst’s work, there was no doubt that this would become one of the most hotly anticipated and talked about exhibitions of 2012. So far, it hasn’t disappointed. Countless critics have once again returned to review the artist’s controversial backlog of unprecedented sales and reignited critical debates. However, as interesting as these views might be, nothing is better than forming your own opinion.
The show has been four years in the making; with head curator Ann Gallagher working closely with Hirst to create a show that chronologically traces the artworks created during the artist’s career between 1986- 2008. All works displayed have been constructed onsite, and include a remake of the shark in formaldehyde (now with mouth open); Mother and Child Divided (2007), the bisections of a cow and her calf; his spin paintings; a room encapsulating the life and death cycle of butterflies (which has proved popular with children); various cabinets filled with medicinal packages; a room transformed into a pseudo-pharmacy; countless butterfly and spot paintings and more.
Naturally, one assumes that a survey of this kind should present an opportunity to trace artistic development and to witness an evolution of ideas; unfortunately, it seems that for Hirst, this collection of work rather exposes his conceptual stagnation. Although rooms 1-14 present works which explore monumental themes, including life, death and the dualities of beauty and horror, Hirst’s application is gaudy and superficial, leaving nothing to the imagination, and thus negating any potential for further investigation.
Hirst has said that his works are “not made with meaning in mind”, that they are “just triggers for people to input meaning”, but I believe this to be a lazy motivation, which has ultimately resulted in shallow artworks that conceptual artistic intention could and should have replenished. The only work which I feel is truly engaging is A Thousand Years (1990), a double vitrine in which maggots develop into flies; these congregate and feed on a rotting cows head, and then when unfortunately enticed, are zapped by the insect-o-cutor suspended directly above. It is a kind of nihilistic, microcosmic universe, in which the determined cycle of life, sustenance and death has been apathetically encapsulated. Wafts of decaying flesh provide an unwelcome but powerful sensory dimension to this otherwise visually compelling work; however, it is as Lucien Freud said to Hirst about the piece: “I think you started with the final act, my dear.”
This survey provides a collection of works, which are essentially variations of each other. The frustrating repetition of taxidermy, vitrines, medical supplies instruments, and spot paintings, left no real impression other than an exhaustive list of artworks mildly concerned with already overworked and underdeveloped ideas. Each display seems to be bigger and much shiner, yes, but essentially versions of the same product. It is disappointing to realise that over the course of twenty-two years, Hirst’s work essentially stalled from the beginning. It seems that the only progression has been Hirst’s increasingly blatant lucre, his overzealous grandeur and his prioritisation of commodity value.
Still, this is not to say that aesthetically, I did not enjoy the show. If considering a piece individually and independently from its neighbour, then sure enough, it’s highly finished and perfected composition accounts for (an albeit slightly pointless) decorative and visually pleasant artwork. However, as one of our nation’s most renowned artists, his collection of work is a little underwhelming and lacklustre. It seems that when Hirst made his name and the money came rolling in, he sold out; endlessly reproducing production-line artworks such as the mind-numbing spot paintings while putting in little effort for maximum gain. He has certainly cashed in on the public’s eagerness for branding and weakness to publicity, and from this perspective his mastery has been his manipulation and careful construction of his art as a business, rather than as a practice.
Perhaps after his death, he will get his assistants to diamond encrust his pickled, grinning face, then suspend it in formaldehyde in a gilded, butterfly-decorated vitrine and call it The Inevitability of a Record-Breaking Sale of an Artist Who is Now Entirely Spent.