Damien Hirst has taken centre-stage at the Tate Modern in his first ever UK retrospective. Love him or loathe him, you’re going to have an opinion.
Click images to enlarge.
“And that’s when I realised we wouldn’t fit into the art world the way it was”, says Damien Hirst, describing his early days as a Goldsmiths student fascinated by collage, cabinets and the world of American minimalist art. 24 years, 300 spot paintings and a lot of formaldehyde later, Hirst is now the world’s wealthiest and most famous living artist. A lifelong obsession with death and the science of nature are central themes to his ever-expanding, ever-changing spectrum of work.
Now for the first time at The Tate Modern, a retrospective of the original Young British Artist’s hugely successful career is on display for all to see. Starting with the symmetrical spot paintings and saucepans of Hirst’s early college days, the exhibition takes the visitor straight through to wall upon wall of his pharmaceutical cabinets: packets of pills, lotions and potions examining the relationship between the human body and modern medicine. Yet before visitors have the time to distinguish their Diazepam from their Dexedrine, their attention is quickly drawn to the most prominent and controversial of Hirst’s series. Shark, sheep, cow, calf and fish all carefully preserved in cabinets and tanks. ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of The Living’ (1991) takes centre point here, a 14-foot Tiger Shark looking vacantly into the emptiness of death, as if mid-swim. Some may find it a compelling symbol of our own mortality; others may find it chilling.
Those with tender stomachs will also find it hard to observe ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990) where maggots hatch, become flies, feed off a severed cow’s head, and then, in a cruel twist of fate, are promptly zapped by a strategically placed insect-o-cutor, all within a glass vitrine. Yet it was the exhibition’s biggest talking point that the visitors queued patiently for, a re-creation of his 1991 installation ‘In and Out of Love’, one room consisting of live butterflies (mind your step!) and the other, dead butterflies painted on canvases. There were also ashtrays of cigarette butts everywhere, another representation, Hirst believes, of ‘a mini life cycle’.
Along with a room of gold sparkling cabinets, spinning paintings and a beach ball hovering above a jet air, the exhibition finishes with, yes you’ve guessed it, another animal encased in formaldehyde, but this time a dove (‘The Incomplete truth’, 2006), suspended mid-flight, symbolising hope, religion and peace, yet also perhaps the struggle between life and death. Typical to Hirst, everything remains extremely subjective and in the eye of the beholder, as the artist himself agrees: “In an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time.”
Damien Hirst runs at the Tate Modern until 9th September 2012. ‘For The Love of God’: Hirst’s diamond covered skull is also on show in the Turbine Hall (entry is free).
Text: Rose Poole
Portrait: Matt Jones, from The Fifteenth Birthday Issue, September 1995
Images © Damien Hirst
From top: Lullaby, the Seasons, 2002. Mother and Child Divided, 1993. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II, 2006. Pharmacy, 1992.