Praying for inspiration

Damien Hirst has got religion. His new show, the first in over a decade, reveals an artist exercised by Jesus, the Disciples and Christian symbolism - with the usual gore and pickled livestock thrown in. But, asks Tom Lubbock, does he have anything new to say?

The obvious has always been Damien Hirst's thing - and when, one year ago, on the first anniversary, he described the destruction of the World Trade Centre as "kind of like an artwork in its own right", he was telling nothing but the obvious truth. The attack on the twin towers was of course like a contemporary artwork. Specifically, it was like an artwork by Damien Hirst.

The gashed and burning skyscrapers were plausible examples of the Hirst aesthetic. The collision of clean-lined geometry with horrific violence suggested his trademark mixture of minimalism and death. The exact doubling of the atrocity recalled the way Hirst's works often come in pairs and divided halves. Above all, the directness of the spectacle, its sheer overt visual power, embodied what for Hirst is the very definition of great art. As he puts it: "Great art is when you walk round the corner and go, 'Fucking hell! What's that?'"

But it's not only great art that makes you ask yourself that question. Absolutely, obviously preposterous art can have the same effect.

A new Damien Hirst exhibition opens today at the White Cube Gallery, in east London. In fact, Romance in the Age of Uncertainty is the first full show of new Hirst work in this country for more than a decade. Of course, his pieces have kept appearing here and there. A good deal can be seen (badly displayed) at the new Saatchi Gallery. But until now, strangely enough, Hirst has not had a major solo display in Britain since the start of the Nineties - which is to say, for the entire period of his fame.

Hirst was for a time the front runner in young British art - though he has recently been overtaken by Tracey Emin. (He seems to lack the knack or inclination for personal celebrity.) He made the going. His work, such as the dead shark (1992) and the dying flies (1991), became proverbial. It wasn't just its media-friendly rudeness. It tapped into various strong currents of feeling: teenage-male delight in science and gore; natural-history-museum stuff; English pop-horror culture, as in Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon, Hammer films and the lairs of the James Bond baddies.

I use the past tense because in the past 10 years, though the fame hasn't gone away, it hasn't really gone anywhere either. There have been regular bulletins, keeping Hirst in the public eye. There was the little lamb in a tank that somebody poured ink into. There was Sensation. There was the football World Cup song, "Vindaloo". He opened a restaurant in London. He made a giant anatomical toy and sold it to Saatchi for £1m. He made and then withdrew those remarks about September 11. But there has been no second act. For a long time he was on a massive bender of drugs and booze, from which he then recovered. The news you may have heard already is that Hirst, approaching 40, father of two, has now got serious. To be specific, a cradle Catholic, and never averse to matters of life and death, Hirst has got religion.

Imagine that you went into this exhibition having seen and heard nothing of Hirst's work in that intervening decade. What would you notice first? Would you be surprised? I think so. But what would surprise you is the déjà vu. Every element in this show would be familiar. All the old ingredients are here: the pickled animal carcasses, dead flies, dead butterflies, pills, cigarette butts, laboratory and surgical equipment, cabinets, vitrines, formaldehyde, painted spots - the stock of imagery from which Hirst has constructed his evocations of life and death, pleasure and pain. Hirst's career began with a concentrated burst of invention. Within a few years, in his mid-twenties, he had assembled almost his whole artistic vocabulary. His subsequent creations have been reworkings - with few additions - of those basic components. The new work goes the same way.

What's new is the meanings. You must match the objects to their labels. In the middle of the main gallery are 12 small vitrines, each holding a flayed cow's head. Yes, but these are the Twelve Apostles. One of the heads is black, blindfolded, facing inward while the rest face out. This is Judas, the Betrayer. At the end is a quite empty vitrine. This is Jesus, gone to Heaven. Around the walls are 12 glass cabinets, containing lab and medical objects, flasks, retorts, kidney dishes, beakers; but among them are instruments and evidence of violence, axes, swords, ropes and mallets, and copious splatterings of blood, which often splurges out on to the walls and floor, too. These represent the deaths, usually violent, of the Twelve Apostles. If you have boned up on your Christian legends and symbols, you'll be able to spot how each cabinet contains vaguely appropriate objects. St Peter was crucified upside down. In his cabinet, all the glassware is stuck, upside down, on the undersides of the shelves.

Of course, the question is: uh? What's that about? What's the point, and what's the good of translating Christian iconography into Hirst-ese in such a clunkingly literal way? Some of the pieces want to feel meatily violent. One cabinet is pierced through with spears. Another is cut in half and displayed in two sections. The one for Judas seems eviscerated, spilling a quantity of gory tubing on to the floor. Others strive to be pure and ethereal. Going up the wall, behind the Jesus vitrine, is a triptych of mirrors, surmounted by four glass shelves of clean, clear glassware, surmounted by a stuffed dove (symbol of the Holy Spirit). These works, by turns perfunctory, inert and absurd, suggest a school art project organised by a teacher who has seen some Hirsts and has encouraged the class to have a go. But what do they add to the after-all-rather-impressive tradition of Christian imagery? What do they add to the existing body of the artist's work?

I won't say this show is a great falling-off. It's a small falling-off. I've never much admired the art of Damien Hirst: too obvious, too bleeding obvious, all the way down the line. It's too obvious in its visual impact, its shock-object window-dressing. Hirst's recurring super-assertive display device, the steel-framed glass box, clamps attention on whatever it contains. But it never quite disguises how little interest Hirst has in the material, spatial and sculptural qualities of the objects he deploys. General impact is enough. His work is too obvious in its big themes, its general meditations on mortality and the meaning of life. And it's too obvious in its insistent self-branding as an oeuvre, with every recurrent element becoming a trademark, designed for maximum recognition - something important to many art-lovers and, indeed, art-buyers.

But he has something, sometimes. What Hirst has been good at is an elusive kind of allegory. The strength of his work is not in its visual power or its general vision. It's in the way - at lucky moments - it brings together objects and meanings in beautiful, surprising conjunctions, not really corresponding, but just touching, glancing, oscillating. To put that another way, he has written some great titles.

A piece from 1991, for example. Two sheets of glass, standing upright, joining in a T-shape. Where they join, a rubber tube also arrives, with a nozzle on it, pointing directly upward and shooting out a fine jet of air, on which plays, a few inches above, a ping-pong ball. Title: I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now.

It's easy to call Hirst a pretentious artist. He is. Yet sometimes pretentiousness is his real gift. That title is wildly in excess of the piece it's attached to. But put them together, and all sorts of chimes are set up between the impossible wish for total continuous human contact and the precarious, moment-to-moment, up-in-the-air suspense of the ping-pong ball. Of course, there's no clinch between object and meaning. There's just a resonance, a reverberation, that can't be defined but can't be denied. It gives the object a kind of soul. It's a rare effect, which Hirst brings off from time to time - in quite a few of his very earliest works, and just occasionally in later ones.

Now take a work from 2003. In the gallery upstairs, there are four more small vitrines, arranged in a cross formation - think of the logo of the Alliance & Leicester - each containing a flayed cow's or bull's head and a book, with each head violently pierced, porcupined, by many kitchen knives, scissors, skewers. Title: Matthew Mark Luke and John. A cross - Christianity, right? Four Gospel-writers - so, the books. But then one of the Evangelists, Luke, is traditionally symbolised by a bull, and the others by other creatures, which gives the piece a weird looseness. As for the piercings, they don't seem to mean anything in particular. The connection between object and meaning just flops, partly over-literal, partly too vague. All that remains is something obvious: the obvious violence.

There are worse things here. A suite of 13 canvases, the surface of each deeply encrusted with a black biscuit-mix of dead flies in gum, each one named after a serious disease - Leukemia, Bubonic Plague, Meningitis, Aids, Tuberculosis etc - and "etc" is the operative word. (Another word would be "product".) And outside the gallery, in Hoxton Square, stands Charity, a 22ft-high enlargement of one of those old collection boxes - the figure of a little girl with a calliper, holding a teddy - that used to stand outside chemists. The back of the figure has been broken open. An enormously enlarged jemmy and enormously enlarged pre-decimal coins are scattered on its base. Oh, whither has our charity gone?

The helpless faith that contemporary art places in enlargement has seldom been more overtly exposed. It would be a dim idea if it were done at actual size. Stupidity magnified seven times is still stupidity. Meanwhile, back indoors, you can see an oil painting, from the artist's own hand, of a dove - Spirit - that is about as bad a painting of a bird as you're likely to see anywhere.

Getting serious? In the past few years, British art has made some dynamic forays into religion. There are those large spiritual presences created by Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley. There are the carefully confected blasphemies of the Chapman brothers. There were Chris Ofili's Upper Room paintings, the Last Supper with monkeys. Susan Hiller's installations have hauntingly conjured up the power of irrational belief. Mark Wallinger has staged compelling confrontations with Christianity. In that company, these new religious works by Hirst are just blanks. They are no more than an idea for making some art, for spinning some art out. What shall I draw, mum? The Twelve Apostles? It may as well have been the nine planets, the Four Horsemen, the five senses, the seven continents, the Ten Commandments, the 12 signs of the zodiac, the Twelve Days of Christmas. It's concept off the peg. It's art off the peg. It's nothing. It's obvious, with a capital "O".

Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, White Cube Gallery, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 (020-7930 5373)