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Workers Returning Home by Edvard Munch, 1913-15, Oil on canvas

I went to see the Munch exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday. The last one I went to was a Damien Hirst retrospective and, of course, the differences between the two are so marked that it makes you wonder about the broad church that is labelled ‘art’. The similarity is in the preoccupation with death. What I complained was lacking in Hirst’s work, a sort of soulful introspection, was there in spades in the Munch; in fact there was almost too much, making the experience a tough emotional one for the viewer and left me feeling claustrophobic and quite ready to dive out of the solid wooden double doors marked ‘exit – no re-entry’.

On the other side of those doors was a nice view of St Paul’s across the Thames and the obligatory exhibition shop. I just sat in a chair and watched people escaping from the clutches of Munch. Exit? No re-entry? Is heaven or hell going to end up being no more, or less, than an exhibition shop.

Anyway, of all the work, and don’t go there if you want to see a version of ‘The Scream’ because, like Macavity the Mystery Cat, It’s. Not. There. Of the whole exhibition, I was most struck by this painting; it’s not just its sheer size, over two by two metres, but the perspective of the viewer. Stand in the middle and face this painting and it feels like the crowd is lurching towards you, ready to trample you underfoot. I experienced the same later that day, walking in the shadow of St Paul’s, with city workers rushing, apparently like automatons, to the tube. Sad to say there was more humanity in the faces of Munch’s workers than the Square Mile drones. I did scream then.

At one point, in the great rushing river of commuters, a man over-reached himself and clipped the back of a woman’s shoe. Her leopard print pump catapulted itself in the air and landed, incongruous like an eel out of water, on the street. I waited for the Cinderella moment, where the man in the City’s regulation suit of armour retrieved the shoe and was transformed into a prince, but it was all dirty looks and the shoe shuffled back on. I went and drank a Princess Sparkles cocktail at The Anthologist (worth a click through for the butterflies alone) to help the situation in my mind some. It didn’t work. The City is wrong.

I see them on the streets. The junior bankers, drinking coffee at five in the afternoon, looking hunted because they are working on some deal that’s going down the pan. No hometime for them today. I see the middle-aged ones, carrying a few spare tyres, who have at least survived and I wonder which one of them is thinking of never going home again: exit – no re-entry.

Damien Hirst: A Private View

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.

The gap between science and religion

By religion I mean any sort of loosely organised mysticism, spiritualism or esoteric practice.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I seem to live in a gap somewhere between Professor Brian Cox, and his ilk, who calls anything that can’t be directly observed, or quantified through some baffling mathematical equation, merely wu wu, or woo woo (how do you spell that Bri?), and that bloke with a white beard whose address is @heaven.

I know there are scientists who have faith too, Professor Robert Winston never called anything wu wu in his life, but I think they are in the minority. I love science but its breathtaking theoretical arrogance is a right turn off at times and, well, that more or less goes the same for the religious life. It’s like we have to jump to one side, or the other, or consider yourself without a framework for life.

Except there is the middle way and it is to be found in the arts, and I call philosophy an art too, albeit a maddening one. So when I saw this TED Talk by Alain de Botton I watched it and I realised that when I stood in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern the other week, and leaned on the rail over the void, clasping my hands as if I was 7 years old and kneeling under the watchful eye of the Virgin Mary and St Norbert in church, I was not going as mental as I thought I was.

Unremarked in daylight

These silver birches are outside the Tate Modern in London, on the south bank of the River Thames.

When I have visited in the daylight I have seen them, but they are unremarkable. An evening visit recently showed them in a whole new light, literally. Unfortunately my camera couldn’t, or wouldn’t, capture the ground level purple strobe that criss-crossed through the trees.

Funny how things can be transformed in the dark. In nature the results can be quite beautiful, in the human mind it can be just the time when the cold, clammy monsters of anxiety and dread come knocking, catching a somnolent person unawares.

Given the choice, I’d take the silver birches every time.