Saturday, 14 July 2012

Damien Hirst

In anticipation of going to see the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst exhibition, last week I reposted a review I wrote a few months ago of the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition. The time that has passed between then and sitting down to write this review is a good indication of how misplaced my anticipation was.

I will begin with the good things I have to say. 1000 Years – a partitioned glass box with flies hatching on one side, and a severed cow's head on the other, above which a bug zapper electrocutes scores of insects that have been lured over – comes early in the exhibition, and best represents all of the qualities of Hirst’s work I like. His Showmanship and unsanitized rawness - the stench of the box is perceptible through two vents in the glass if you get close enough. The Tate Modern has most of Hirst’s best works in these respects. The famed shark is on display, though it is less impressive than I expected. As is Mother and Child Divided, and Hirst’s giant ashtray, which gives off a heavy whiff of fag-ends, once more taking on the normally sterile setting that an art gallery presents. Perhaps the best piece of stagecraft is a room full of butterflies that hop from one person wearing brightly coloured clothing to another. This was such a draw that the gallery staff had to usher people along to prevent the butterfly room becoming overcrowded. A notable absence was For the Love of God, Hirst's diamond encrusted Skull. Although, the gift shop has been turned into an odd shrine to it, selling skull T-shirts, skull paperweights, skull notebooks, and so on. I suppose this was inevitable given that the skull touches on themes of capitalism, wealth and excess, but only served to highlight its absence.

Despite the number of works that are well worth seeing, the exhibition is littered with dull and boring twaddle. Infuriatingly this is repeated endlessly. Just when you think one medicine cabinet might have been enough, another appears, and then another. 20! 30! 50!!! Finally an entire Pharmacy is recreated. Then come the medical instruments – Scalpels and scissors by the dozen, replicated over and over. I must say, despite the number of spot paintings and butterfly paintings, they did not wear on me quite so much - some of them were exceptionally beautiful. However, once you have seen one medicine cabinet, you have seen them all. There was just so much of this exhibition that I could have quite happily walked past that it detracts from the good.

Hirst is a something of a contradiction. He has rightly earned a reputation for shock value and excitement by mutilating various animals, but the endless repetition of his works makes some of it monotonous and, quite frankly, boring. Similarly, this exhibition is, overall, a mixed bag. Go if you have an afternoon to kill in London. Otherwise, an emphatic "Meh!"

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