Wednesday, 1 August 2012

But is it art? Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern

I give myself the same Christmas present every year; an annual membership (myself plus guest) to the Tate. As a fan of contemporary art this enables me to swan around all four Tates as I choose, taking friends willy-nilly into exhibitions that are otherwise £10-15 per ticket, as often as I like throughout the whole year. And I can then retire to the Members' Room and people-watch until my feet recover. Bargain.

The Damien Hirst exhibition (until 9th September) at the Tate Modern covers over twenty years of the no-longer-quite-so Young British Artist's work, so off I went to take a look.

The exhibition opens with the forerunners of his famous Spot paintings; cheerfully-coloured boxes and pans from Hirst's student days. It's like looking at pictures of a celebrity when they were a baby - then in the next room you're straight into the flip side of the Hirst fame coin, mortality and death. A severed cow's head surrounded by flies - themselves living and dying in the (thankfully) enclosed space - dominates the room; not only visually, but get too close and you can smell it. Hirst himself called it 'a nasty piece' that simultaneously pulls you in and pushes you away; somehow it made me think of the people who slow down on the motorway to gawp at an accident on the other side.

Butterflies are major players in the exhibition too: trapped in the paint of limpidly coloured canvases, in circles like the kaleidoscopes of childhood or living out their brief span in In and Out of Love. I feel bad that they will never see a meadow, but I guess I'm supposed to. Butterflies are perfect memento mori I think because they are so extravagantly fragile and beautiful, yet their lives are so brief. I particularly liked Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven where they are used to make stained glass windows, a backdrop to a statue of an angel half-flayed like an anatomy model.

Those looking for Hirst's famed shark in formaldehyde will be happy - there are two in this exhibition, along with bisected cows and a black sheep. The one that I found most affecting was the Incomplete Truth; a single dove, captured as if in flight, a kind of simple hope and hopelessness mixed together.

For the merely idly curious and/or the seriously skint, For the Love of God (the iconic £50 million diamond-encrusted skull) could be viewed together with a brief explanatory background video, for free in the Turbine Hall. Sadly, this display has since been closed. There was a bit of a queue, but it was worth it; death has never been more beautifully dressed. 
Hirst is frequently attacked as a purveyor of 'con art' - art which is both conceptual and cons people. I don't pretend to be any kind of expert on art; when I go to an exhibition I just wander around and see what happens, and on the whole I enjoyed this one. For those who sneer at his iconic spot paintings and say 'I could have done that', I just smile and say 'But you didn't, did you?' (Of course some would say actually neither did Hirst - but that's another story!)

Try it - you might like it.

Yours thoughtfully,

Girl About Town xx

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