Damien Hirst and an ‘undeniable wow factor’
Damien Hirst may be the best known of the YBAs, or Young British Artists, but perhaps incredibly, he’s never been the subject of a major survey show in the UK. Until now.
Damien Hirst opens at Tate Modern this Wednesday and includes many of the artist’s greatest hits – from the diamond-encrusted skull to the shark in formaldehyde. There are medicine cabinets and spot and spin paintings. And there’s even the famous rotting cow’s head – still being devoured by flies more than 20 years after it was first created.
Gathered together, they create an undeniable wow factor. Hirst has always been particularly skilful at conjuring up spectacle. But many of the works are much more beautiful than I remember. And there’s something pleasing about seeing again some of the most famous art of the last 20 years – like re-encountering those proverbial old friends.
I was particularly charmed by Hirst’s early work, especially an experimental spot painting which is far less technically proficient than later examples completed by assistants. I suppose what fascinates me about this is the idea that it’s invested with more of the artist’s humanity – and is therefore, according to some people’s definition, a better or more complete work of art.
It’s important to point out that Hirst himself would reject this. As he told me in an interview, he tries to put as little of himself in the work as possible. The idea here is to create as much room as possible for the viewer to find space for his or her self – and his or her feelings. And one of the things that struck me whilst looking around the show and seeing pieces like Judgement Day, Midas and the Infinite and The Incomplete Truth is that they’re much warmer and have much more heart than I remembered.
I don’t, unlike many of the critics who’ve been raging against Hirst on the pages of our broadsheets for the past month, have any problem with conceptual art. Although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I think art is created at the moment when an artist has the idea for a work. But I do see all great art as being the expression of an artist’s unique way of seeing or interpreting the world. So if they receive technical help to arrive at this it doesn’t particularly bother me.
But I do have one major issue with the show. And that’s that it doesn’t contain any work created after 2009. I’d have liked to see again the blue paintings which were shown at the Wallace Collection that year and attracted almost uniformly venomous reviews. It would have been interesting to see these alongside some of Hirst’s more critically successful work, particularly as they could be seen as representing his stepping back from some of his usual working practices and reconnecting with more traditional, solitary painting. Not that I think this is in any way artistically superior. But it would have added an interesting element to the mix.
It would also have been interesting to assess some new work alongside the greatest hits. And, as with Greatest Hits pop albums which usually contain a couple of new tracks to show that the artist isn’t yet past it, we’ve come to expect at least a few new pieces from major visual arts retrospectives. Unfortunately, the lack of any new work will do nothing to silence those critics who claim that Hirst has lost his lustre and has nothing new to say.
For new work we’ll have to wait until May, when a show of paintings opens at Hirst’s commercial gallery White Cube. Until then, Damien Hirst at Tate Modern offers us the chance to celebrate the artist’s back catalogue, re-examine some of the most iconic and influential works of the YBA movement – and revel in the beauty, ugliness and sheer spectacle of what is a body of truly sensational work.
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