‘Damien Hirst is weird’
This is the reaction fellow contributor Laura gave when I said I was visiting the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern. Months ago when I initially heard about the exhibition I was unsure whether to bother seeing it. Damien Hirst is far from my favourite artist, and his key works are so well known and reproduced that I seriously doubted whether seeing them IRL would allow me to consider them differently. It was only when a few friends invited me to a late viewing that I thought I ought to go and see it.
Viewing the exhibition at 9pm on a Sunday night we experienced it in a totally different way to most people. A friend who had seen it earlier had described queues stretching into the Turbine Hall, and said that actually viewing the artworks was nearly impossible. For us there were no crowds, the few people who were there clearly had a significant interest in the arts and I imagine they genuinely appreciated Hirst’s work. My friend George was one of these enthusiastic viewers, and he recognised I was less so. I have various problems with Hirst, which this exhibition only confirmed.
Hirst has always seen himself as a conceptual artist, however much of his work is marked by a sheer lack of concept. The low level of thought which has gone into its creation means the viewer will very rarely be challenged or forced to think critically. Like Thomas Kinkade’s work, Hirst’s is a very comforting art, easy to hate and easy to like. It is this ease of viewing that George actually finds appealing, for me, art which fails to make us think is the worst form of kitsch.
Hirst repeatedly works on the same weak concepts. The retrospective lacked variety, it felt like a single exhibition, rather than an overview of a lifetimes work. In repeatedly constructing pharmacy shelves, Hirst isn’t increasing the concept, merely his market value. The endless dot paintings are the archetypal Hirst work, mass produced and articulating one thought. Comparisons could be made with Mondrian, who likewise turned out dozens of similar abstract works, however seven decades have passed since Mondrian, and Hirst only appears to have just caught up. Perhaps though we should consider Hirst in context, the vapid vacuity of his work more suited to those halcyon days where the end of history was truth, not ideology.
The greatest problem I have with Hirst is what I see as an almost complete lack of irony. Hirst imagines himself a punk-artist or troll, operating some sort of accelerationist programme within the artworld. Instead, all I see is a sincere pandering to the ruling class and its various structures, institutions, and the state. Towards the end of the exhibition there is a room where Hirst has ‘ironically’ created new bejewelled versions of his classics. However I felt sincerity hadn’t been entirely eclipsed.
The few works I did enjoy were the ones involving living / dying animals - A Thousand Years (1990) and In and Out of Love (1991) - perhaps because they can’t be accurately replicated in images or videos. Even then though I felt that these works would be more suited to a Futurist exhibition in 1912 than 2012.
Ultimately it is the fame of Hirst supports and destroys him. The repetition of his works across all media is what has made him famous and justifies the obscene prices for his works, yet at the same time it devalues the art object. When I stood in front of the dead shark, it wasn’t the dead shark, but a dead shark, merely one of the hundreds of others I’ve seen in my life. I was glad that I went to the exhibition, precisely because it only confirmed my belief in the continual destruction of the artistic aura.