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Damien Hirst Lullaby, the Seasons 2002 Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern


by Floriana Piqué

To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect                                                                                                                        -- Oscar Wilde 


The Artist


Sometimes, in the history of art and culture, an artist who is a symbolic figure of his times, becomes so famous that the interest in his life, in what he is doing overwhelms all the other aspects.


The intent of this retrospective at Tate Modern was to centre the attention on the artist and his work. And the works and the splendid installation allow us to affirm that the duty has been utterly fulfilled.


Room 1, where the display of early works introduces us to themes and projects, reveals the starting point and the focus of Hirst’s artistic production.


In With Dead Head, 1991 – a photographic print from a snapshot taken in a morgue when he was just seventeen - he places his head side by side to a severed head: a frozen smile on the artist’s face dismisses the fear of death.

Damien Hirst A Thousand Years 1990 Photographed by Roger Wooldridge

The spectacle of Death will become the spectacle of decomposition, of decay that will be alienated, put on a side, dismissed by the imagination, by the artistic creation. The artist’s inventiveness against the ineluctable finitude of Life.


The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, a shark in a glass box filled with formaldehyde solution is a fight against irreversible destruction.


But at the same time while he is trying to overcome fear presenting us with a livid gaping shark, Damien Hirst is searching for a way of alternating what is there with what isn’t there anymore, a way of reproducing a cycle.


Instead of adhering to stillness, to the void, he tries to concretize the Sublime withFor the Love of God, 2007 where he required from the craftsmen absolute perfection in covering with diamonds an eighteenth- century human skull.


The light sparkling from the diamonds gives the skull, historically a memento mori, a new meaning: a provocative gesture for an infinite life.

Damien Hirst 

In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) - installation view Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates 1991 

A Thousand Years, 1990 is Damien Hirst’s way of defying the Nothing for here death is just an instant in the transformative cycle of existence.


In a sealed glass box a decomposing cow’s head sitting on a puddle of dry blood feeds flies born from maggots hidden in a minimal white box.


Some flies live the entire cycle of their live, others are abruptly allured to an insect-o-cutor to meet an early fate.


The cycle perpetuates in a never-ending sequence.


“ It was the first time I’d ever made anything that had a life of its own, or had an uncontrollable life, or something that I had no control over. “ (Interview with Nicholas Serota, catalogue)


Opposite to this path to decay the same cycle life-death appears in In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991 as a path to beauty. In an especially created environment the artist hung white canvases embedded with pupae that will become butterflies free to fly: they counterpoint the white room with their vivid colours, feeding on fruit.


Beauty misleads the viewer who sees only the bliss of life, oblivious of the limitations of life span.


“…when you get too deep into the darkness, you need to move it towards the light as well. The butterflies were a good way to get away from the flies: butterflies living instead of flies dying. “ (Interview)


Spot Painting with its drippings evolves into the series of Pharmaceutical Paintings. From this point onwards the process is taken over by assistants, outlining Damien Hirst’s idea that art-making resides in the project and the mere execution could and can be delegated.


The titles Iodomethane-13c, 1999-2001, Caproaldehyde, 2003, Cupric Nitrate, 2007 recall different kinds of drugs and highlight faith in medicine.


The same faith is at the origin of Pharmacy, 1992, a multi-part installation taking over an entire room, replicating exactly the environment of a pharmacy staged in an art environment.


This staged apothecary with its glass bottles reminiscent of ancient alchemy, the cabinets full of traditional and new remedies and drugs brought to us by progress and scientific discoveries shows not just a fictional set but also an illusory purpose of all this colourful paraphernalia: in Hirst’s own words “You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway”.


Lullaby, the Seasons, 2002 synthesizes pictorial effect and impellent research of systematization: four glass and stainless steel cabinets filled with handmade and hand painted pills, the colours changing according to the season, whitish silver for Winter to orange hot red for Summer. The need for order and systematization materializes here in the perception of four large paintings.


Summed-up in a sense of quasi-surgical coldness, the order reappears in Doubt, 1994 a two doors tall stainless steel vitrine, colourless, arranged row by row with medical and surgical equipment.


As if to counteract this feeling, the artist provides us with the opulent Judgement Day, 2009 where a glass gold plated stainless steel cabinet is meticulously filled with manufactured diamonds, deliberately and provocatively adding value to a work of art.


Shark, skull, butterflies, cows, pills, medical equipment, cigarette butts, diamonds: all physical objects turned into aesthetic objects by the artist’s intervention.


In this retrospective we look at the works of Damien Hirst under a different light, for only the direct, sensible experience can provoke emotions.


The viewer shares with the artist the same vision and the imagination gives substance to a something, an attractive immateriality which we can not fully grasp but permeates with its uniqueness the work and the intellectual project of this artist.

Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.


The exhibition Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern in London from 4 April - 9 September 2012.

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