Tuesday, 3 July 2012

DAMIEN HIRST RETROSPECTIVE -Tate Modern -Wednesday 20 June 2012

Room 1
8 Pans, 1987

8 brightly painted colour saucepans on a white wall

The early works begin with the eight pots and pans covered in bright household gloss that Hirst assembled whilst still at Goldsmiths. It is apparent even here that space will quite literally occupy a delineating and central role in typifying his work.
Never mind the flat round bottoms of frying and sauce pans pre-empting the spot paintings, (the first of which hangs to the left in the same room) it is equally the case, that  Damien is obsessed with order and display. The dripping hurried look of the circles on his first spot painting reveal far less about his emerging fastidiousness, than the necessity to lay things out as though they are on a grid. The gaps in between are absolutely uniform. There are tiny drips and runs on the pans, and some of the early cases because household gloss will do that, but there is nothing but intention and definitiveness in the scrupulous attention to revealing space.

His works then are not merely as many would have you believe about reconciling painting and sculpture; they are about the techniques of both disciplines. The measuring of perspective with pencils and brushes is not the way he arrives at his truth, it is not even in present in the laying down of paint. It is for him merely a way of revealing something new in the spaces in between. The early snapshot of him posing with a nervous grin next to a dead man’s head is all too easily seen as confirmation that the big themes he works with are life and death, but that is true of all art. It is obviously a recurring narrative but not so insistent as the patterns of emptiness revealed between pill boxes and butterfly wings, the two rooms of A Thousand Years and In and Out of Love. There is dichotomy and tension in his examination of the permanence of death and the fleeting brevity of life, but really it is the images that rush in and fill the vacuum he leaves, that burn long in your brain.

several coloured boxes of differing sizes arranged closely on a wall

Boxes, 1988

Boxes from Freeze again reflects his attention to order and removing chance, (with this reincarnation being even more meticulous), but also his habit of making work specifically for spaces. In this show he has co-opted the walls, with paper and symbols, and brought the outside in with his butterflies and flies. He has spoken of making specifically for spaces like the Saatchi Gallery and his arrival here in the Tate Modern does seem somewhat overdue.

Rooms 2 & 3

The first small medicine cabinet in this room is dwarfed by the fish swimming in opposite directions that make up the biological naturalist Piscean species textbook made real* in three dimensional form, and the spot painting opposite them. The human is here breathing laboured breaths within medicine cabinets, and the animal frozen in the two sheep heads, the lone, bleat free whole specimen and the shark and bovine figures glimpsed in the adjoining room. Again the space between subjects is dominant, this time human and animal. How we humanise animals and how we ironically rarely acknowledge the animalistic truth of being Homo sapiens or “knowing men”. This is perfectly demonstrated with Away from the flock. Here the lone sheep is made an individual inviting us to endow it with human qualities, like personality. This is again apparent in room 9 with the aptly named Mother and child divided. The tenderness, with which these specimens are presented, their pristine, washed and brushed white hairs rendered immaculately and carefully stretched and fixed onto acrylic mounts inside the vitrines is very touching. There is a Dove later mounted as if in flight and presented like an angel, its vitality revered by the glistening soft feathers appearing washed by man made detergent achieving a brightness not found in nature.

A Shark preserved in 3 welded steel tanks full of formaldahyde

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

The shark does little to frighten or instil any sense of mortality in me, it suffers I think from overexposure and while knowing it is not a great white you still expect to be overwhelmed by it’s scale and menace, and yet the fear barely breaks the surface. The ripples are not there, and only the thick glass of the three heavy cabinets offers any distortion. The formaldehyde renders the menace impotent. In all the tanks bubbles rise to the surface and stay frozen in time as an impression on the glass lid. Duchamp may have sought to remove the hand of the artist but like a sucking sock pulled out of the sand the shoe of Hirst remains indelibly etched in these captured bubbles. The artist has said that he liked the fishes because even in formaldehyde it was as if they were in their natural environment, but I think the opposite is true. Water moves and reveals the motion of creatures that move through it. Those tell tale trails of transit are missing even when posed as if swimming.

Rooms 4
chair,table,cigarette,ashtray and lighter in black framed glass case

The Acquired Inability to Escape, 1991

Here again there is much to be found in what is missing. The lack of a smoker leaves an indelible impression as present as the gaps between butt ends in Dead Ends Died Out. It is a kind of poetry that reminds me more of the dulcet tones of T.S .Elliot than Francis Bacon. A year earlier and in the previous room Hirst had made A Thousand Years the now infamous living and dying physical embodiment of the life cycle of maggot to fly, helped along by the severed head of a cow some sugar and water and the glowing blue scythe of the tiny vomiting disease carriers own personal Death, the insect-o-cutor. Here the maggots are not hidden in a box they are laid out in neatly measure rows like the pill cabinets, each space between measured out like the breaths of a lifetime. The seeds of decay ignited with a blue flame and resurrected should they falter by sucking on their dry caramel innards. As I move towards the butterflies I can hear again the voice of Eliot reading aloud his poem, The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?                    

Rooms 5 & 6

You are as a visitor encouraged to move, steadily and slowly, through the live butterflies, something I needed encouragement to do. Strangely and unexpectedly I found myself comfortable, if a little bored by dead butterflies and unsure about live ones. For me In and Out of Love was a very fleeting, transient and all too brief experience to draw many conclusions about it. Again surprise has been surgically removed from the installation by it’s familiarity and context in such a building.

Rooms 7

The work Pharmacy seems to lose focus at such a scale. Ten years later in Lullaby, the Seasons a work mounted in four cabinets in room 3 Hirst nails it in a beautiful three dimensional evocation of his spot paintings reflected in having colour and the spaces in between perfectly symmetrically realised whilst incorporating the anatomical themes of his first medicine cabinet. In those he replaces belief in pharmaceutical drugs with lullabies and the poetry of seasons. Each season’s colour is presented almost impressionistically per cabinet but here in Pharmacy there seems to be no emotional presence. There may be a reference to A Thousand Years with the Insect-o-cutor but there is none of that works surrendering of control. Here the Artists grip is vice like and no amount of Pharmaceuticals is going to stop the patient dying. 

Room 8

The spin paintings and a giant remaking of Room 1’s excellent What Goes Up Must Come Down in the floating beach ball of Loving in a World of Desire. Again scale does not help and I can not engage with it as much as it’s original inception, humble and ready made it may have been but it also creates more volume than this industrial version. However many tins of gloss you ejaculate over a spinning canvas you will never capture much about love and desire when your method is so meticulous and predictable. They all look like spin paintings. Spewing over a record deck would at least introduce unpredictable cuboid matter. Gloss paint has been developed to give uniform results and that is exactly what it does.

Room 9

A giant white ashtray full of cigarette packets and ash

Crematorium, 1996

close up shot of titled artwork, cow sawn in half

Mother and Child Divided (detail), 1993

The exploration of the space between things and the gap between ideals is manifested here in both cow and calf. Hirst has said that his work is about everything and nothing and it is easy to buy this as a neat explanation for the polar aspects of his work. The reality though seems not to be so neat.  Whilst these huge mammals are neatly and surgically torn asunder it is not merely to reveal the inside and outside, the spiritual and the physical, the tangible and the ineffable, the soft white coat and the dried bloodied innards. The artists invites you to once again explore the space between these ideas. Is the cow mounted in two tanks or in one divided? Where does the division lay? Is it between the calf now separated from it’s mother, or in the walkway opened up between each body and traversed by the galleries pilgrims in search of truth? Maybe the real gulf opening up here is the distance between secular society and the Christian story of virgin birth.

From birth we hurtle to life’s end. In the same room one’s olfactory senses are assailed by the stench of death, but this is not the reek of abattoir, the bovine carcasses now odourless and forever sealed in stasis. This is the somewhat more pleasant caramel like dusty waft of cigarette ash. The huge ash tray Crematorium is again undone by its scale. There is too much artifice here in the choice of fags, all Marlboro and Camel, Regals but no tobacco or cheap brands and to much neatness. No dirty ash skid marks up the sides and a Disney like surrealism that has me expecting the arrival of a giant slobbering dog from Honey I Shrunk The Impact .

Room 10

A bit like an Art lesson this room feels a bit cold and desperate. The convoluted juxtaposition of the three works Still, Doubt and Lapdancer with the work Trinity- Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology suffocates engagement. The first three bright glimmering stainless steel cabinets, carefully laid out with surgical instruments and implements are too busy and utilitarian, the objects crowding any sense of space, their shiny reflective surfaces imposing on each other much more clumsily than the tools themselves would cleft, lacerate or buttress gaping wounds. The opposing Trinity of teaching aids in three white wooden cabinets are all too domestic. The anatomical models and cutaway sections of wombs, heads and uteruses reveal nothing but the workings of a body and nothing about the artist or his reaction to anything. Like the formulated plastic it is all very practical but the viewer is distracted by this and too enamoured with the illustrative lessons the objects are giving than any message hidden in the art.

Room 11

Marble Angel with body open revealing organs and intestines etc

The Anatomy of an Angel, 2008    

close up of multi coloured Butterflies on black gloss surface

Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven, 2007 (detail)

Rendering the ineffable and transient as immovable flesh rendered in Marble is nothing new. The sculptor responsible for this angel though has realised Hirsts vision by following directions to continuing chipping away at the    white marble, long after the languid form of one of God’s messengers has been revealed. The renaissance style statue is peeled open like a medical teaching aid, creating an internal anatomy of human fallibility and evoking more wonder and awe than that engendered by a traditionally ethereal angel. Deep cavernous lines, like heavy bold set type, and a new lexicography to an ancient art, with nods to Da vinci and the twin Gods of religion and Science.

thousands of butterflies arranged in mandala circles on canvas

 I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, 2006

While Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II could easily be transferred to the ceiling or floor of any holy building, Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven would make most sense transposed to the stained glass arches of a Christian chapel or cathedral. It is a very English work suffused with a pastoral beauty and grandeur that befits its religious overtones. It is at once, both awe inspiring, and modest. I am become Death, Shatterer of Worlds is hypnotic and rhythmic, it’s pulsing circular motifs beating an eastern karmic raga of reincarnated butterflies into your brain. All three of these works are so much more astonishing in real life, the symmetrical application of jewelled and many hued butterflies onto canvases covered with household gloss amounting to so much more than the sum of its parts. Yet here in these works the space between things is the big element again, the frame work and grid on which all his work hangs. It is a stunning tour de force which could so easily collapse into decoration. Opposite these intertwining cogs of reincarnated beauty, in the next room, he presents us with a massive full stop that tempers any over exuberance, and explodes into ones consciousness.

Room 12

Big black circle composed of dead houseflies

Black Sun, 2004

close up detail of flies piled up to create black sun

Black Sun, 2004 (detail)

Black Sun is like being punched in the face by an acorn headed Ernie Shavers. It is as if Mark Rothko had given alien birth to Guernica and the bastard fly encrusted canvas is sucking not only your face off, but siphoning out your soul through the hot dusty orifices of your fleshless skull. It presents death as a real and three dimensional reality. Not an easily dismissed printed full stop or two dimensional painting. This death is not an abstract thought, this is the real deal, presented as the end of space, of air to breathe, of gaps in which blood can flow and cells can move, this is the all encompassing suffocating decomposition of stasis. An orgy of corpulent flies, their conflagration no longer concerned with copulation, fucked but not fucking, piled up like monuments to decay. There is a Black sheep in the room, and I notice the pleasing blackness of its case but really I am rooted to the spot and transfixed by Damien’s big gob. He began this journey nervously smiling next to the head of a dead man and just thirteen years later he is howling into the abyss.

Room 13

All this death makes Damien sick, so sick that four years later in 2008 like some Cronenbergian nightmare, he regurgitates Lullaby, the Seasons from 2002 as an opulent and soulless exercise with Judgement Day part of the two day Sotheby’s  two day auction project Beautiful Inside my Head Forever. I worry about what is inside his heart at this point, because although he is clearly still concerned with beauty he is rehashing a facsimile of pills with manufactured diamonds and a gold cabinet. It is a curious case of Gerald Ratner inverted, in which an obviously more luxurious and valuable yet inferior copy of something precious is sold for millions.

close up of man made diamonds on gold shelves in gold cabinet

Judgement Day, 2009

Room 14

Hirst hints at the polar opposites of life and death with The Incomplete Truth but like the Holy Spirit, this dove seems to hover in between. It is so achingly beautiful after the ugly gold cabinet of Judgement Day, that it seems however much Damien tries to say everything and nothing with his work, he can never clip the wings of his own humanity. The moment is captured perfectly, rising up in flight with tiny air bubbles of formaldehyde caught between its feathers this symbolic bird is all about the soul, and the definition of inner space. Like a tiny piece of heaven flying through water, its dichotomy, as a symbol of peace and freedom, trapped forever in a glass vitrine, is a demonstration of the invisible space between ideas that holds everything here together. Without air to fly through it is nothing, and yet the artist’s mastery over space has freed it even from this earthly tether, preserving it floating impossibly like a hallmark anointing his work for all eternity. 

White Dove preserved in blue formaldahyde hovering within white cabinet

The Incomplete Truth, 2006
* Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) and (Right) 1991


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