The thing about death is that it is impossible to imagine. Although I didn’t like Damien Hirst’s actual stuffed shark in formaldehyde, the unsnappy title had a touch of the circus philosopher genius about it, now I come to think about it. Back in the real world, the unimaginable keeps happening, keeps being on the news. The radio has to be kept off, the internet avoided, so one will not stumble on some crass media image. Apparently, we must be force-fed first-hand reports and pictures, it is what the media monster craves. I don’t believe an eye-witness needs to speak to the media in the aftermath of any horror or disaster, they need healing and love.
And I need to keep the gaps in my imagination intact to let in the light, that that is left.
I need to find some. It’s nothing to do with the those funny little Clangers that lived on a planet far away, rather it is how Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky described the inner sound of art. That is to say how contemplation of the outer reveals something of the inner.
On reflection, that’s what I think might have been missing from some of Damien Hirst’s work. It’s like trying to find the Innerer Klang in the repeat pattern of a roll of wallpaper.
Or, maybe, if you listen too hard for something you won’t hear it anyway; too easily drowned out by the white noise in your own head…
I originally called this post Damien Hirst: bedizening death, but I kept spelling it wrong, and no-one knew what it meant. Hirst once described his work as ‘decorating death’ and in the first title I was kind of agreeing with him and taking the piss out of his own titular mouthfuls for his art, but sometimes it’s just better if a blog post does just what it says on the tin… so, here goes.
Last night I was invited to a private view of the new Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, an opportunity for which I was suitably grateful (thank you Finky Wink). Not because I have ever been a particular fan of Hirst’s work, but rather because an evening in an art gallery is always an enjoyable night out.
The last major retrospective private view I was lucky enough to be invited to was over ten years ago: Patrick Heron’s at Tate Britain. I went as a friend of the family and afterwards there was a dinner, over the river at the Glasshouse, with the artist, who was an elderly man. That was the first thing I noticed about last night’s view, that there was no sense of intimacy with the artist himself. Of course you would not go expecting to see Hirst as such, let alone have dinner, but I do believe there is the opportunity at any exhibition to get a sense of the artist, even in their absence, because you are in the presence of some element of them, in the art.
When I went to see Patrick Heron’s work, I was not a great lover of abstraction. I could hardly see the point of stripes. Yet there was something in Heron’s stripes that has not left me, ever. Something that spoke of himself. And if I am truthful, I still preferred his Cornish boats, but there was something about his work, including in the stripes, that stayed with me. It was in the colour, the execution; a quiddity, or essence of the man in the work, if you like.
As we processed round last night, the spectacles were indeed visually arresting, starting with this, the diamond studded platinum cast of a 18th century skull, called ‘For the Love of God’
The most expensive piece of artwork ever made, you were forbidden to photograph inside the darkened vault it is displayed in, so I just snapped this on the screen outside. The camera on the mobile phone added its own atmospheric laser-like beams of light. Nothing prepares the human eye for the impact of over 8000 diamonds, so the skull is worth seeing for its glitteriness alone, but is it art? It looks more like unwearable jewellery, or reliquary, but instead of us worshipping the bones of saints we admire the impossible sparkles, the cleaned-up, transplanted 18th century gnashers, and the sheer chutzpah of the artist who got a jeweller to make the piece to his specification.
And that was where I started to question what I was seeing; immediately after I had seen the skull. I did go with an open mind, I promise, having seen Hirst on the Channel 4 programme the night before (here’s the link to their own Private View), having found him engaging and interesting. However, when Hirst’s art starts to speak for itself the message does not translate into meaning for me. I suspect this is why he uses a lot of tricksy titles, the concepts need words to convey their meaning more clearly. As I walked round the exhibition, I got the sense that here was a man with a few key concepts, that he repeats and repeats, just bigger and blingier as his resources allowed. Boiling it down to its bare bones, as he seems fond of doing, it is: circles, a schoolboy’s anatomical fascination with death, lining thing up into rows and stacks, and finally doing it all again but bigger and with more bling. If you can be bothered to look about the web, you will find most of what he has done, has been done before, just not on the same scale. And there’s another problem: the doing of it. If you have people to do the work for you, the factory approach to art, where are you in the process? How do you speak to the viewer. A clever concept does not move the heart and soul.
As a meat-eater and leather shoe wearer, I am not sure I am entitled to a moral objection about the various fauna in formaldehyde. Of course these things rely on shock value, and the scale of the cow for example is impressive. There is no way Hirst did these things alone. And the form of the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. I found my eyes drawn continuously to the oxygen bubbles trapped in the vitrines. I found the fish boring, their scales dull; let’s be clear fish are not boring, think of the icy slab of a fishmonger, in this case it was merely the presentation. At one one point, I found myself having a debate in my head about the marks on the floor. I was looking at some white paint smudgey smears, thinking, I didn’t notice these during the Richter exhibition. Were they there then? Now, if you are looking at the floor wondering about the marks on in it in the middle of a major retrospective, you are in trouble deep. I like to think it was not just me; by the time we got to the last chest-height case with a preserved brown sheep in it, it was unremarkable, so much so that an elderly woman was admonished for leaning casually on it whilst conducting a conversation with a companion.
The animals are contorted slightly unnaturally. One might say that someone who pickles animals is unlikely to be showing the subject much reverence or respect, but the main sense I had was of an artist who failed to understand the intrinsic beauty of his subject, and rather than adding something he was merely redacting it. By the time we got to the contorted white dove at the end, a part of me was dying inside; my interest in conceptual art I suspect.
The iconic piece is, of course, the shark. When I saw it, I just thought, ‘Oh dear, he’s turned it into a sock monster’.
Here it is.
I went, wanting to like. I came away thinking it was empty. A clever idea is just that, a clever idea, unless you can translate it into something with meaning. Clever ideas are in themselves meaningless. They do not alone help us to understand things any better, or see things in a new and different way. The job of the clever idea is to get our attention, and then engage the senses, the feelings, the self. Hirst stimulates the senses with his giant ashtray and rank smell of cigarettes alright and some observers may be revulsed by the animals, yet strangely the experience is largely incomplete and perhaps, incoherent. Sterile?
But the main thing I felt was a kind of sadness, everything was so, ordered. Most of what is produced and placed in the gallery space should be somehow flooded through with energy, but everything is almost opaque. Glass cabinets with drugs stacked in them, stained glass ‘windows’ studded with butterfly wings – they are missing some transformational quality that I can only describe as light. Butterflies themselves, sharks, sheep and cows. Even the stainless steel items he has lined up endlessly in one room, all need a little space for the light to come in. Sadly, it seems that the ego casts a very long shadow, and money an all-encompassing one.
For me art is about an aesthetic, and according to Kandinsky, the aesthetic is spiritual. What I found was a poor sense of colour, an artist who does not understand light and an idea that aping the aesthetic sensibilities of religiosity and death is somehow saying more than has been said before. I am really sorry to say this, but, it doesn’t. It would be nice to see him close the door on all that and let some light in, but Damien Hirst is a brand now and I suspect escaping from those capitalist clutches will be an impossible task.
But maybe not. I sincerely hope I am wrong because I hate to write like this. The main exhibition is on from today until September. Entrance is £15.50. I didn’t go in the main shop, because let’s face it, he doesn’t need my money, but from what I saw of the merchandise outside the skull vault, it’s all expensive stuff. Go if you want a spectacle, but if you are hoping to be edified in any way, prepare to be disappointed.
It was revealing really, the programme on Channel 4 with Noel Fielding, who, in response to the photograph of a youthful Hirst alongside the head of a cadaver, said something like, ‘well of course they’re not there once they’re dead…’ And Hirst said that he’d never seen the dead body of a loved one. I can’t help feeling, in that admission, we were given a slight insight into the world of the artist. Rather than engaging with the world and bringing it into his art in any meaningful sense, he sort of keeps life and death at bay, bedecking it and playing with it all, like a child.
In the photo of Damien and the head, the dead man is not really there, and in his exhibition, neither is the fully-realised possibility of Damien Hirst, the man and the artist.