Has Damien Hirst jumped the shark?

Tate Modern will host the artist's first British retrospective next year. But critics are divided about whether he deserves it

Rob Sharp
Tuesday 22 November 2011 01:00

The ultimate symbol of the art world's excesses will form the centrepiece of the first major British retrospective of Damien Hirst's work next year at Tate Modern. For the Love of God, the diamond-encrusted skull which notoriously sold for £50m in 2007 to a consortium that included Hirst himself, will be housed in the gallery's turbine hall for nearly three months. As the world struggles with economic troubles, some of the artist's best-known works, many of which have sold for millions, have been chosen to showcase British art during London's Olympic year.

"They are super-familiar on one level but in a new context the work will be interesting on another level," said Chris Dercon, Tate Modern's director. He added: "There is a kinaesthetic aspect when you are in a room with these works, seeing your own reflection in the vitrines. It is as if you are stepping into a laboratory of ideas."

Among the approximately 70 works on display will be Hirst's 1991 shark in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and A Thousand Years, the 1990 large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow's head. The exhibition's curator, Ann Gallagher, said there would be "at least one" new work, which Hirst is currently creating.

Visitors will also be able to see a two-part installation, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) and its accompanying piece Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays), exhibited together for the first time since 1991. People at the gallery will also be able to walk through a room in which butterflies are hatching and then dying, another example of Hirst's obsession with the themes surrounding death.

Hirst appeared in a pre-recorded video at yesterday's press launch. He said: "I am really pleased that the diamond skull will be on exhibition again in London, having been away for five years."

So will you be going to the Tate?

No! says Brian Sewell

Damien is a millionaire many times over. He runs what is essentially a factory and employs between 50 and 75 people. And here is the Tate Gallery giving him the most enormous financial boost. He could afford to put this on on his own. If it's costing the Tate anything it's a monstrous unfairness.

What always happens after this kind of thing is an artist's prices jump by five or more per cent. A huge exhibition at Tate Modern is a mark of importance if not of quality. Those many museums which haven't got a representative sample of one of his many genres will have to investigate the possibility of buying. This show is an advert and he pays nothing.

There was a time at the beginning when I thought Damien was interesting. He had ideas. And the way he explored them, it held my interest and I thought, "this boy has something".

Over the last 20 years he has simply played the fool or exploited the folly of museum directors and there's been no real invention. There's been no change. If you told me there's going to be new work, it will be following the same pattern, so why are we doing it? I am inclined to say he is so familiar no one needs to see another work to see what kind of artist he is. If you have seen one spot painting you have seen them all. There are about 700 of them now. There is no intellectual nourishment to be had, so why do we need to see them again?

It is the problem with Damien: the idea is immediately understood by anyone who is looking at the works. You can't go back to it. It has no contemplation time built into it. It's not like a great piece of sculpture or painting which you can go to again and again and find something which consolidates your emotional response, or extends that response. There is no extension or consolidation, there is just the same stuff.

The Tate are probably doing it because it's an exhibition that doesn't require explanation. You say it's an exhibition of Damien's work and 90 per cent of possible visitors will know they are in for formaldehyde animals and the sheep and the cows and the pigs and the rest of it.

They know about the pseudo medical sculpture. That's what they will expect to see.

Those reviewing may approach with the belief that now is the time to write a piece about Damien from beginning to end, something informative but uncritical. The alternative is to assume everyone has seen the work and to write something very brief. The third alternative is to dismiss it completely.

Brian Sewell is art critic for the Evening Standard

Yes! says Michael Glover

It is easy to attack Damien Hirst for his opportunism, his vulgarity, his ability to make large sums of money. There is too much easy envy concealed behind such snap judgements.

What we forget is that Hirst helped to shake up a dreary and complacent scene. That was how things stood before the YBAs came along in the late 1980s, before the Tate bifurcated into two institutions, before this country began to take contemporary art seriously.

It is said that Hirst shocks us, and that he revels in that ability. What we must remember is that until Hirst and the YBAs began to make an impact, British art had almost forgotten what it was to shock, and that The Tate Gallery was half full with Harris-Tweed-jacketed connoisseurs who knew what was good, and, frankly, that was pretty much all that there was to be said about it.

We needed everything that Hirst represented. We needed his spirit of reckless adventure, his refusal to take no for an answer, his ability to sniff out hitherto unglimpsed of possibilities in the most unlikely of places. We also needed to be reminded that art, fundamentally, was not about the garnishing of well-to-do interiors.

Art, when vital, is about setting the teeth on edge, of reminding us that we are alive for a span, and that the ugly and wholly unavoidable fact of death is never very far away. Art is about the beautiful. It is also about the nasty, the unpalatable.

And so when the student Hirst, in cohoots with the man who would become his friend and dealer Jay Jopling, sourced a shark in Australasia, and Hirst transformed it in 1991, into a work suspended in a sealed tank called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, something really troubling was beginning to happen.

Cutting animals in two and creating art out of the parts of a mammal are pretty horrifying. They were also a tremendous jolt.

We had become accustomed to the sight of paint applied to sections of canvas, to bronze raised up on plinths. We had forgotten that art has always used and abused organic matter. Hirst decided to go further, much further.

He made works which seemed to be agonised reappraisals of lessons learnt from his childhood catechism. Were these blasphemous? Was he thinking the unthinkable?

Let's hope so. Art must never draw a line around its reckless self-inventions, and then inscribe them with the words: this alone is art. That way lies the deadening hand of complacency.

Michael Glover is art critic for The Independent

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