'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.



Tacita Dean’s 11 minute silent eulogy to celluloid at the Tate Modern presented a problem when writing this review; would it be categorised as a film showing or an art exhibition? By virtue of its title and medium the answer should be obvious, however the work is much more complex. I believe it would be better described as an ‘experience’; exhibiting qualities of both cinema and gallery installation.

The art object is defined by its physicality, whether it be an oil on canvas or bronze sculpture, in contrast the film is a series of projected images, the celluloid itself is of no concern, existing merely as a helpful medium for the recording of such images. Dean’s oeuvre however has been defined by its attempts to address the physical nature of the film. The labour of carrying rolls of film, of meticulously cutting and sticking and the time spent contemplating and processing, cause, in her words, analogue films to made and seen quite differently to digital.

Various features have been employed throughout the exhibition, as in Brechtian theatre, to deny the seduction of the viewers senses, here in order to remind us of the physical nature of film and the process by which it has been made. I was made constantly aware, by the tracking holes visible on the projection, that the images flashing before my eyes had been carefully thought about, captured, and edited. The lack humans in the film prevents empathy, the lack of sound forces us to listen to the environment around us, I was reminded that I was merely an observer, uninvolved in the narrative.

Further confusion as to whether this is a display or film was brought about by the work’s sculptural qualities. The vertical format film is projected onto, rather than a screen, a vast monolith which stands a few metres from the end of the hall. It gives the work a presence that flat screens lack. I walked entirely around the projection, and was prompted to consider the aspects of film behind the camera or screen, the physical objects and labour we often forget about.

Dean shows us that film is a physical process, she celebrates the virtues of the medium. However this is in the context of the waning use of film and rise of digital cameras, the entire intention of this work is to remind us of the dying art of sooting on celluloid. Dean asserts that this isn’t a piece of nostalgia, as the very act of creating it shows the art isn’t dead.

Dean is trying to inspire the viewer by pushing the limits of celluloid, by shocking us she hopes to attract our interest. I saw parallels here with the avant-garde soviet film directors. Indeed the flash cut montage interspersed with tracking shots of steps instantly reminded me of the Odessa steps sequence in the Battleship Potemkin. However, the similarities I saw with the soviet directors made me question whether, if all that contemporary artists can do is regurgitate tropes from the earliest days of cinema, then perhaps film is indeed dead, or at least, stagnant.

For Dean though, my concerns for the medium are irrelevant, the importance of celluloid lies in the fact that, ‘its a beautiful medium, a different medium’. Though with the recent fall of Kodak, I worry whether this medium will last long.