Hirst's gory display of melodrama and mock-religiosity

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The Independent Online

Everything changes. Everything remains the same. Eight years from his last British show, Hirst opens his new exhibition at White Cube with a bifurcated calf in formaldehyde displayed in two vitrines. Date? 1984. The biblical title - The Prodigal Son - is engaging and a pointer to what comes next, and what this show largely consists of: a melodramatic display of gratuitously heightened mock-religiosity.

Everything changes. Everything remains the same. Eight years from his last British show, Hirst opens his new exhibition at White Cube with a bifurcated calf in formaldehyde displayed in two vitrines. Date? 1984. The biblical title - The Prodigal Son - is engaging and a pointer to what comes next, and what this show largely consists of: a melodramatic display of gratuitously heightened mock-religiosity.

Why mock? Well, Hirst hasn't been near a place of worship since the age of eight. Religion is everywhere in this show. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the spurious gravity religion affords is everywhere evident in titles of the works in this show.

Once we've stepped over the two prodigal half sons, we enter the main gallery, which is tricked out like a long, nave-like interior. At the high altar opposite us is a work called The Ascension of Jesus. It is a cabinet with open doors, a shelf above it laden with flasks and bottles, and, above all that, a dove with spread wings.

This piece is relatively mild-mannered compared with the content of the nickel-plated, stainless steel-and-glass cabinets which line the walls and the 12 vitrines displayed in two rows up the middle of the room - rather as if someone were showing us the ground plan of the piers of the nave. Each of the wall-hung cabinets is named after the martyrdom of a saint. And what is in these vitrines? A terrible clutter of gore, the bloody accoutrements of martyrdom and much else, including flasks, phials and forceps. Blood spills out of some of them, spattering the gallery's concrete floor. Others remind us of vanitas paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries: the vitrine which displays St Matthew's martyrdom comes equipped with a skull, a bloody crucifix, measuring flasks, an axe and a bottle of Quink ink. St Jude's vitrine includes a large and grisly looking thigh bone. It is all excessively, if not laughably, melodramatic. So much for the walls. The 12 vitrines on the floor - the collective title of this piece is Jesus and the Disciples - contain twelve cows'/bulls' heads in formaldehyde. One of them, Judas, is blindfolded. The question arises: in what sense does Hirst really believe in any of this stuff? The light relief is on the walls. The two huge paintings which flank the entrance, called Devotion and Hope, are daintily symmetrical arrangements of butterfly wings. They look rather like the rose windows from a Gothic-revival church. The only thing which causes us to find them mildly repulsive is that the butterfly wings are real - but Damien was always good at being self consciously transgressive.

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