Damien Hirst: revelations through shock tactics

Damien Hirst: revelations through shock tactics

Emrah Güler LONDON - Hürriyet Daily News
Damien Hirst: revelations through shock tactics

Damien Hirst poses with a creation entitled ‘I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds 2006’ during the opening of his solo exhibition showcasing work spanning over two decades at the Tate Modern. AFP photo

Whether you are an art aficionado with old-fashioned conceptions of art or are ready to be swept away by the shock value of contemporary art, it’s hard not be impressed with Damien Hirst. More specifically, it’s hard not to be impressed with the largest U.K. exhibition ever for the man who single-handedly changed the British contemporary art.

The sight of medicine cabinets neatly filled with pharmaceuticals, or the head of a cow with flies crawling all over it may not be your idea of art, but for evoking emotions and raising questions, Damien Hirst’s work would have to be at the top of a list of true works of art that leave an impact. That impact might wear out as soon as you leave the exhibition, but it’s definitely palpable when walking past dead and living butterflies, a shark suspended in formaldehyde.

With his first exhibition “Freeze” in 1988, Hirst leapt straight into the art scene, initiating a brand of contemporary art that would leave its mark on Britain in the 1990s. Known as the Young British Artists, YBA, or Britart, a generation of artists born in mid-1960s that included Hirst, along with others like Tracey Emin and Carl Freedman, revitalized visual art by incorporating shock elements in their work, using throwaway objects and showcasing their opposition to the system in unprecedented ways.

The Damien Hirst exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, running until Sept. 9, presents most of his high-profile and controversial works together for the first time. For Hirst, “Every work must say something and deny it at the same time.” Hence, his fixation with oppositions, like life and death, science and religion, faith and loss of faith, decay and resurrection, the passing of time and the suspension of time.

“There are four important things in life: religion, love, art and science,” says Hirst. Love is not present in most of his work, but religion and science both have overarching presences. His spot paintings show a meticulous arrangement, almost scientific in terms of how they use color, the distance between spots, and their placement on canvas.

Cigarettes and butterflies

Hirst’s cabinets, exemplified most famously by his medicine cabinets, display carefully-placed replicas of pills, cigarette butts and diamonds hovering over the viewer from wall to wall. Science, or more specifically its relevance to making sense of death and a assisting with the desperation to delay it, is evident in many of Hirst’s works.

“You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway,” says Hirst. Pharmaceutical are recur in his work, as do cigarette butts. Hirst has referred to smoking a cigarette as a “mini life cycle.” Cigarette butts and full ashtrays run through the exhibition, culminating with his 1996 work “Crematorium,” a giant ashtray filled with cigarette butts and empty cigarette boxes. Concepts of life and death become more pronounced in Hirst’s famous “Natural History” series. His 1991 work “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” consisting of a shark preserved in a vitrine, was originally intended to evoke primal fear in the viewer, but feels more like a circus show.

Not so with the bisected cow and calf, which allow the viewer see the animals from both inside and outside simultaneously, but perhaps the works that best epitomize Hirst’s obsession with life and death are the “In and Out Love” installations, using butterflies. In one humidified room, pupae are attached to white canvases, and butterflies are in different stages of life, some getting ready to hatch from the paintings, others flying freely inside the room and feeding on flowers and fruit. In another room are canvases covered with dead butterflies.

In another room, dead butterflies are turned into medieval-style stained-glass church windows and forms reminiscent of mandalas from Hindu or Buddhist traditions. Accompanying them in the middle of the room is the figure of an angel made from white marble. From one point of view the angel looks not unlike a classic religious sculpture. Another perspective reveals the angel’s internal organs on display. The guiding power of science to deal with death gives way to religion in this room.



Hirst is one of the richest artists in the world, and his tour de force on opulence is exhibited in another area, in the Turbine Gallery. “For the Love of God” is a human skull encrusted with some 8,000 diamonds and real human teeth, which sold for a record 100 million dollars. Hirst’s position as a maker of genuine art might be an issue for discussion, but his business acumen is well known, proving Andy Warhol’s famous words, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”