Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player




A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Damien Hirst





Curated by Ann Gallagher


Tate Modern



4 April - 9 September 2012


This is the first substantial exhibition of Damien Hirst’s iconic works in the UK, curated by Ann Gallagher at Tate Modern. It brings together the butterflies, the shark, the cow and calf, the sheep and the flies, spots, spin paintings, sterile cabinets, marble with a plethora of cigarette butts and numerous-sized ashtrays.  There are two major installations: In and Out of Love 1991 - like stepping into the hothouse at Kew - and Pharmacy 1992, a chemist-cum-church where packaging is neat, obsessive and plentiful.   

In 1994, Away From the Flock featuring a sheep suspended in formaldehyde was vandalised at the Serpentine Gallery. Yet since 1988, controversy has never been far from Hirst or his art. It continues. Room 1 features Boxes 1988, from his first installation, Freeze’s - With Dead Head 1991, a photograph showing Hirst  in the anatomy department at Leeds University,  8 Pans 1987, also from Freeze in bright, block colours and What Goes Up Must Come Down 1994, plexiglass hairdryer and ping-pong ball on a luscious pink plinth. The exhibits show what is to come: a minimalist style, household gloss and a fascination with science.  

Perhaps the difficulty is in trying to fix Hirst at all. ‘In artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time’….He’s set up to be knocked down. He has the auction record, £9.6 million, for the most expensive piece of art by a living artist, Lullaby Spring 2002. He opened a restaurant in Notting Hill in 1998 with Matthew Freud, Liam Carson and Jonathan Kennedy, formed a band 0 - Fat Les and directed Beckett’s Breath in 2001 for channel 4 and RTE. He spills out, lavishly, beyond conventional, artistic tramlines.

Yet claims persist that his work can be traced in some measure, form, or in a direct steal, to other artists. In 2009, Anthony Haden-Guest interviewed Hirst: “other artists have attacked you for using their ideas. John LeKay said the skulls were his ideas. John Armleder…was doing spot paintings. And some say Walter Robinson did the spin painting first.” Hirst’s tribute was: “F*** ‘em all!’’...*

Yet what is evident is a compulsive energy which is never truly satisfied. Hirst returns to ideas, themes, again and again and seemingly in ever increasing modes of expression. You only have to look at the first comparatively modest ‘spot painting’ in Room 1 and compare it to the larger presentations which take up an entire wall. Or the bling inspired ‘midas touch’ of 30,000 manufactured diamonds in Room 12 which parallels the modest Lullaby, the Seasons 2002, with its ‘coloured plaster and painted pills.’

Most striking of the sarcophagus-like vitrines which suspend animation is Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) and (Right) 1991 which look as if its fish could swim away. Only their opaque blue corneas reveal death prior to incarceration.
Eerily, the formaldehyde solution in the ‘natural history’ series responds to footfalls and vibration, creating a ripple effect. Yet look at these exhibits from a forty-five degree angle, or walk slowly past them, and the 3-D trick reveals multiple reflections. This optical illusion continues through to the last piece The Incomplete Truth 2006 as a dove, possibly representing the Holy Ghost, peace, is seen in a series of visual palimpsests. These gallery pieces are more theatre than art. As if to prove the point, a child walked between the two calf sections of the Mother and Child Divided 1993, and with outstretched arms, formed a human bridge between them.  

Hirst’s most visually arresting work is the stunning Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven 2007, made up of butterflies suggesting a medieval stained-glass window. Apart from the bold colouring, it is the impression of full sunlight illuminating everything in a warmth and generosity that reaches out, linking to the spin paintings in ‘a celebration of the joy of colour.’ A stark contrast to Black Sun 2004, a huge, circular disc made up of dead flies or the acted out drama of the life/death cycle in A Thousand Years 1990.  

There is much to experience in this exhibition, and for those perhaps in the know, much to chafe at. It is huge, monumental. If you want an answer as to whether Hirst is charlatan or not, or if his work belongs to The Emperor’s New Clothes style, you will come away unsatisfied. An irony played out in For the Love of God 2007, the diamond encrusted skull, with its original prominent teeth, bared in a grin, echoing LeKay’s ‘Jack-a-Lantern’ skull covered in Swarovski crystals, from 1993.

Yet Hirst emerges as a much more complex person than this straight imitative act suggests. If you want concept art it’s here: visceral and interactive. Even though Hirst claims conceptual art and minimalism are ‘total dead ends.’ Yet the journey through this exhibition, spanning twenty years of his output, lights on the random progress from life to death through decay, obsession, religion, art, science; and through the intensity of colour, life and energy.


Editor’s Note: We do not condone the killing, or, perpetration of suffering of any living thing in the name of ‘ART’, including the hundreds of butterflies being brought in regularly to, all too briefly inhabit Hirst’s 1991 installation – In and Out of Love (White Paintings with butterfly pupae about to hatch glued on them) at a time when "two-thirds of Britain’s 59 butterfly species are in decline." **

**Patrick Barkham author of The Butterfly IslesA Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals




Tickets £14 (£12 concessions) or £15 (£13.50 concessions) with Gift Aid donation
Open every day from 10.00 – 18.00 and late until 22.00 Friday to Sunday
For public information and tickets www.tate, or 020 7887 8888
Tate Modern
London SE1 9TG


Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved