Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II 2006
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2011. Photo: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates

There isn’t really much point is talking about his upbringing in Leeds or his rise to notoriety as part of the early nineties YBAs. People already have well grounded opinions of him and his art and this show won’t do anything to change them. If anything, this Tate Modern retrospective of Hirst only goes on to strengthen them; especially those I had of him.

Thankfully the only pre-90s work is over and done with pretty quickly; the first room houses the spots, albeit a  much looser and more primitive format, as is the mechanised installations featuring iconic British objects such as hair dryers and saucepans. Some artists play at perfecting the same idea all their life and Hirst is certainly no different.

It’s a matter of life and death for Hirst here with his first greatest on display, 1990’s A Thousand Years; a monumental vitrine complete with rotten severed cows head, electric Insect-O-Cutor and many thousand flies. Marvel as the flies eat, mate, lay eggs, hatch, fly and die, again and again and again. Thankfully there is no smell seeping from the vat and the dried blood on the polished Tate floor.

It is this fascination with death as art, resurection and the life-cycle that impresses most; whether it is the monolithic Black Sun, one and a half meters wide and three inch deep in dead, resin coated flies; or one of the many formaldehyde soaked animals; here best represented by the classic The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. It never fails to impress. It is horror suspended. You look that shark in the face and it is like the subliminal shots of the demon Pezazu in The Exorcist or an unshakable childhood nightmare. The horror is weakened with age – no doubt about it, but it is still fascinating and grim in the same way as Gunther von Hagens plastinated bodies are.

There are a number of rooms that represent Hirst’s different periods and themes. A whole room is suitably devoted to his Pharmacy Restaurant sale and another to the glorious Kaleidoscope Painting series; initially they appear to be monumental stained glass church windows but on closer inspection, each is made out of hundreds of clipped butterfly wings – for me, always the highlight of Hirst’s more recent work and the entire period around his infamous Sotheby’s sale. You also have Crematorium, I gigantic ceramic ash-try, full and wreaking old dog-ends. This bring to mind not only his Brit-pop period but also his contemporary Sarah Lucas. And then you have one of his beautiful marble statues – Anatomy of an Angel; a third venus, a third lab specimen and definitely only a third a good as Marc Quinn doing the same thing.

It’s a great shame then that too much of the exhibition is taken up with repetitive dross such as way too many spot paintings (I counted at least twenty), appalling multiple coloured canvases with just a butterfly stuck to it and the horror that is the gift shop selling the absolute over priced and over-killed multiple signed editions he’s sells over at his New Bond Street shop, Other Criteria. Why not included other areas of Hirst’s catalogue not represented here, like his photorealist paintings or his poor Bacon rip-offs from 06/07. This exhibition is everything I love and loath about Hirst. When he has a great hook, he rolls with it and it works, but he does it too with the crap that means nothing.

Right in the middle of this exhibition is a room that splits me down the middle. Titled In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies); this stifling hot room is home to many exotic looking butterflies feeding from bowls of fruit and chrysalises hooked to solid white canvases. And who’da thought that these creatures could create Twombly like drips on these canvasses and pass for art as they hatch? Here it is birth and death on repeat. As the butterflies land on you and crawl around your neck, it sends altogether different kinds of shivers down your spine as you take in just what is happening here. As wonderous it might seem, it is also worrying. It seems to me that any butterflies that do die, and there will be many, are quickly removed. If a fly dies, let them pile, but not the pretty butterflies. Quite surprised there isn’t an uproar and protests about this.

For all that is good about this exhibition (and there is a lot), I can’t help but think that much of it represents the decline of both Hirst (or at least his work) and the decline of all that is good about art – hedge funds, over paid footballers, record-breaking hundred million dollar sales, Russian oligarchs and Hirst’s ability to apply any price-tag he wants to any shit he makes.

But still, it is worth seeing for all of the right and wrong reasons. Be amazed, be shocked and be frustrated a little too.

Damien Hirst is showing at Tate Modern until Sep 9th.

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

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