Thursday, 21 June 2012

Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern

There is a great deal to like about Damien Hirst's art. I learned a lot from this exhibition at the Tate Modern, which I propose to summarise here. Most of what I have to say is very positive, which is somewhat out of line with most reviewers.

If you haven't read any negative reviews, then you must lead a sheltered life. They're everywhere. I don't propose to summarise them here. But I do recommend that you seek them out for a more balanced view. 

I also recommend that, if you haven't been to this exhibition, you should go (its on till September). You will learn a lot about Art, a lot about Hirst, a lot about Art Criticism and a lot about Yourself.
First let me try to characterise exactly what it is I like about Hirst.

 I like the fact that his work is systematic. I like the fact that it is very geometric.And I like the fact that it is on an industrial scale. 

Perhaps the most impressive works are the geometric patterns made by mounting butterfly wings is arrangements that imitate stained glass windows.

I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, 2006
These images, and there are many in this exhibition, have to be seen in the flesh to be appreciated. These a real butterfly wings. They are arranged very systematically. The design is very geometric. The images are huge. 

"I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, 2006" is 5 metres by 2, at least. Stand 5 metres away. It looks like stained glass. Stand 2 centimetres away. It looks like butterflies stuck in gloss paint. Stand 2 metres away and appreciate the geometry. It's beautiful.

The idea is not apparently unique to Hirst. Lori Precious has made works using butterfly wings to give a stained glass effect, which she explains on her website

Unfortunately I haven't seen her work in the original. On the screen it looks as beautiful as Hirst's. However, as I have often commented in the past, "Size is Everything" and the sheer size of  Hirst's images adds significantly to the emotional impact of the work. This is why it is never enough to look at art in books or reproductions. You need to see the original whenever you can.

[I am sure everyone is now aware of the criticism of Hirst for copying ideas from earlier artists. If you're not, read Stuckist Charles Thompson on "The Art Damien Hirst Stole"].

Systematic construction is a theme of all of Hirst's work shown here. And geometry appears in many guises, which is probably why I like the work so much.

Geometry is most apparent in the Spot Paintings of course. Images such as "L-Leucine-15N" are everywhere in Hirst's work. The spots are fascinating. Sometimes they are small spots on a large panel (L-Leucine-15N is approx 12 metres by 3). Sometimes large spots on a small panel. But always, apparently, on the same metric of spots placed exactly one diameter apart. This appears to be Hirst's signature, as also, I conjecture, is the limited palette, presumably imposed by the use of commercial gloss paint.

But geometry is apparent in most of the work. The cabinets full of pills, the cabinets full of diamonds, the cabinets full of surgical instruments, the cabinets full of pharmaceuticals have symmetry imposed upon them which adds to (may be the primary component of) the emotional response that the observer experiences. The sheer size of these works and the feeling of industrial scale, especially in the production-line-like reproduction of similar-but-different installations, is very affecting. This is Mass Customisation in Art, and all the better for that.

[On a logistics note, how do the curators move these pieces. The pills, diamonds, instruments, pharmaceuticals are not apparently stuck down. Does Hirst provide instructions (like LeWitt) or photographs, so the curators can assemble the work exactly the same after moving it to a new location?]

Geometry, for me, is even apparent in the Spin pictures, where paint has been planted (Pollock-like) on a spinning circular canvas and allowed to obey the law of centrifugal force that smears it out towards the edges. You could imagine reproducing this effect in a computer by doing a little bit of differential geometry to decide where each colour would end up after a certain degree if spinning. The apparent randomness of the effect is less random than the artist might have hoped.
Pharmacy, 1992
Returning briefly to those systematic, industrial scale installations that create abstract pharmacies, I remembered my observation on reviewing Hockney, that both he and Hirst would be remembered as great artists in 100 years from now. My view of Pharmacy is that it will improve with age. It reminded me of nothing less than walking into a Co-operative store of 1910 in an industrial heritage museum. The experience of that, of walking into the past, where the cans of beans and packets of gravy salt evoked the impression of times long gone will be something that Pharmacy will inherit long after we are all dead.

As you will gather from my partial review there is some work which doesn't do it for me. The dead animals, the disgusting ashtrays and cigarette ends. It's probably because I am squeamish. I am generally of the view that all art is worthwhile and if I don't like it, it's probably my fault, that I just don't understand it.Whatever happens I learn something by looking at it, and in the case of these exhibits I probably learned as much about myself as I did about art.

Even these more biological exhibits have systematic construction and geometric aspects. Its just the content that disgusts me.

All art is about ideas. Hirst exhibits ideas that are more than worthy of our consideration. Maybe the ideas aren't original to him, but the execution surely is. There is a consistency of application here, of systematic construction, of geometric abstraction and of industrial scale which runs through the exhibition and gives it a feeling of being designed as a whole. Of representing a whole life-so-far. Isn't that how a retrospective should be?