Damien Hirst offers plenty to love and hate in major retrospective at Tate Modern

By Mark Sheerin | 02 April 2012
Colour photo of a shark suspended in a vitrine
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011. . Photo: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates
Exhibition: Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, London, April 4 – September 9 2012

A ping pong ball kept aloft by an upturned hairdryer is at once the most modest and the most portentous work in this major retrospective of Damien Hirst. It is entitled What Goes Up Must Come Down and demonstrates that it is amazing what a feed of hot air can do.

This sculpture from 1994 reminds visitors that not only is the original Young British Artist is one of the most successful artists in the world, but he is also the most talked about. And in the midst of a global recession, prices for his much-discussed global art defy gravity.

The centrepiece in Tate’s summer blockbuster is pop culture’s second most famous shark after the movie Jaws. But The Physical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is smaller than one imagines in the flesh, and it looks a little gummy with age.

Across the way is Mother and Child Divided, another landmark work. But his cross-section of a cow and calf is in a similar state of decomposition. Like the shark, they are more liable to disgust than shock these days.

But disgust is an emotion Hirst does better than anyone. The first work he put in a trademark vitrine was a colony of flies plus the severed head of a cow. The result, A Thousand Years, now assails you with the smell of death. Another work, Black Sun, encrusts a large circular canvas with dead flies. Nothing could be grosser.

More offence comes by way of a giant fibreglass ashtray filled with thousands of cigarette butts. This work, Crematorium, will present smokers and ex-smokers with an unwelcome reminder of the terminal nature of that pastime. Anyone could have thought this stuff up, but it took a special kind of madness to really go there.

Colour photo foa kaleidoscopic disc shaped painting motorised to spin
Damien Hirst, Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kid's stuff, lacking integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, sensational, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa)  1996© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011. . Photo: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates
Hirst is at his best when he’s being repellent. When he is not, he tends to be anodyne and then problems start. Spot paintings, spin paintings, medicine cabinets, butterfly paintings - these are all now luxury brands. With a delicate lepidopterist collage or a dove in flight in formaldehyde, Hirst shares with pop artist Jeff Koons the knack of making rich people feel okay about their wealth.

Taken to the extreme, this has resulted in making a work using almost 9,000 diamonds and a skull, called For the Love of God. This has jumped the shark, so to speak, so far it hardly seems like art. Visitors can encounter its multi-coloured glisten in a darkened chamber. Leaving behind the fag ends and the flies, this installation smells of money.

Where Hirst delights, he also appals. In and Out of Love is a two part installation in which humidifers, bowls of fruit and live butterflies provide a fully immersive show stopping experience. The fluttering media are stunning, but why should Hirst get the credit? They would look just as fine in a polytunnel at your nearest garden centre.

There’s another jaw dropping installation next door where the pharmaceuticals stretch from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling. It’s a jaw dropper. But perusing a shelf of medicinal brands is, perhaps, less interesting than just glimpsing one in the backroom of your local chemist.

It must be said, however, that the cases filled with surgical equipment are a return to macabre form. A recent floor-standing case called Lapdancer contains hacksaws for amputations. Unlike butterflies and medicines, these come from a place where you wouldn’t want to go, the place where Hirst will always go.

You can almost see him at work in a large vitrine called The Acquired Inability to Escape. Inside a double frame of steel and glass sits a large white desk, a chair, a lighter and cigarettes. The scene is set for a morbid and cogitative smoke. Here we can anticipate Hirst at his unsavoury best.  

But elsewhere he suspends11 sausages in formaldehyde and you have Hirst at his unsophisticated worst. Love him or hate him, you may well come away from his first solo museum show in the UK with a good dose of both reactions.

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