Severed heads, animal corpses in jars of formaldehyde, wild black butterflies, and psychedelic spinning colours. You could easily mistake it all for some large scale science experiment from a horror movie.
Stumble upon this collection in your neighbours basement and you’d be struck with the fear of god, but here in the Tate it’s art.
Damien Hirst is a rarity, in that he is an artist who enjoys all of the luxuries of fame within his own lifetime.
One of the creators of a group known as the Young British Artists, who took the art world by storm in the 90’s, he has quickly become their most celebrated member. Certainly he is their wealthiest with his net worth estimated at £215 million.
In a long overdue visit to the Tate Modern, Hirst has brought a collection of works he has created throughout his entire career, giving visitors a chance to witness how it has progressed over the decades.
From the entrance of the exhibition my eye was automatically drawn towards movement in a room where all else was still. Distant black dots wove frantically through one another in the white high ceilinged room, similar in a way to some futuristic, minimalist asylum.
As I drew close the black dots became flies captured in a ten feet high hollow glass tank. Below them an amputated cows head seeped dark red blood across the gallery floor that glistened in the overhead lighting. Above them a florescent blue fly zapper hung menacingly, ending the lives of the flies who couldn’t resist its glow. With a short sharp spark, each smoking fly would drop on top of the heaps of tiny fly corpses that came before it.
Although it’s easy to focus on the grotesque severed cows head, I think the interest for me was the little creatures that feasted upon it. It seems that Hirst has captured the never ending cycle of mortality inside Perspex glass casing. Eat, breed, and die so that others may do the same after you are gone.
Staying consistent with the theme of life and death, which seems to have been the focus of Hirst’s career, the shark has the starring role.
The piece is titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and once you see it you can understand why.
Placed right in the centre of the display, the shark is a contradiction. Once a predator of the Pacific Ocean, she looks out at the foreign terrain of a London gallery through clouded dead eyes. Her body is contorted in a position that suggests she will attack and yet she is completely harmless. Clearly she is dead but hold her gaze and you half expect her to blink.
Another example of living art in the exhibit is from The Souls, a previous collection of Hirst’s.
This is a quartered off section, which seemed strange in this open plan space, divided by two layers of thick plastic sheeting.
Once inside I was engulfed with fluttering dark butterflies who’s colouring, or lack of, contrasted with the pale bright walls creating a Tim Burton feel.
I watched as they consumed the rotting fruit and sugar water from the bowls provided and as they landed with complete trust upon the shoulders of those who had come to see them. The theme ran linear with that of the flies in the glass tank. Here the butterflies would be born from the pupae hanging on the walls, they would live out their ephemeral lives, and eventually they would die, losing their grace and dropping to the floor in the humidity.
Coming near to the end of the display there was another well-known piece, Mother and Child Divided. This is a four part, floor based sculpture of a pregnant mother cow, beside a young calf. Both have been bisected in to halves, each half placed in opposing tanks of formaldehyde allowing enough space for visitors to pass straight through them.
As I queued I couldn’t help but think this seemed more science than art.
Another mother and child stood behind me.
“It’s amazing isn’t it,” I heard the mother whisper as she saw the intricate anatomy of the beast.
“No it isn’t amazing, it’s very sad,” her daughter replied.
“Don’t be silly we eat cow every day.”
Perhaps this was Damien’s intention, to bring a sobering awareness to the facts of life that we collectively pretend we don’t know.
Next a large ashtray the size of me was surrounded by visitors who leaned in to take a whiff, recoiling in repulsion.
“Doesn’t it stink!” one commented. I’m ashamed to say that no matter how close I got to the piece I could smell nothing. Perhaps it’s time to quit.
The last piece in the exhibition was a white dove, wings spread as if taking flight. In contradiction to anything previous it seemed to signify hope. Not for the dove though. He is destined always to be placed beside a gift shop in various parts of the world.
Overall I enjoyed the exhibition. There are undeniable elements of essential cruelty in Hirst’s art which may leave some understandably disgusted. Others will feel astounded but none will leave unaffected and I feel that is Hirst’s goal, to touch people.
I hoped to leave the exhibition with a better understanding of what modern art meant to me but I can’t say I did. I’m still not convinced anybody can honestly say they understand it all. But as a spectacle the Damien Hirst exhibition was stirring and maybe that’s all I, as a layman, can ever hope for, an emotion that I can’t explain.
Damien Hirst’s collection will remain at the Tate Modern until 9th September 2012.