I used to think Damien Hirst is just the guy who puts dead animals in formaldehyde and paints color dots. Then at Art Basel and now the retrospective at Tate Modern, I experience the power of his sensational work. The Tate Modern exhibition gives me an opportunity to trace the development of the prominent British artist and see his body of work systematically through various viewpoints.
Life and death
The first piece in the first room is a striking portrait of a young Hirst with a dead head. It’s based on a snapshot taken by a friend in the anatomy department at Leeds University when the 16-year-old Hirst went as a young student to make anatomical drawings. “I was absolutely terrified,” he later recalled. But he was laughing. Suddenly it all makes sense. Hirst’s fascination of death was there with him all along. He always claimed that his work is more about life. But death is essentially part of life. This polarized duality becomes one of the main themes in his career. When he put the shark in formaldehyde, he made it look threatening but helpless, powerful and weak at the same time.
|With Dead Head, 1991|
|The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991|
Life and death are oppositions, but they are also a cycle. The most power piece that addresses this concept is A Thousand Years. In an enclosed glass vitrine, maggots hatch inside a white box, turn into flies and feed on a bloody severed cow’s head lying on the floor. Flies circle around in the vitrine. Some hit the insect-o-cutor and die, others survive and continue the cycle. Here, the glass vitrine bears a clean and minimal geometry, while messy life and death of organic matter is contained inside, creating a literal enactment of birth, death, and decay.
|A Thousand Years, 1990|
In the two-part installation In and Out of Love, one room with a specially maintained humid environment contains white canvas where butterflies hatch and feed on sugar water and plants. Live butterflies fly around freely, and occasionally land on the visitors’ heads and shoulders. The other room shows eight colored monochrome canvases with dead butterflies randomly attached to their surfaces, like they have hit and died on it. In the center of this second room is a table with ashtrays full of cigarette butts. Here, the rooms are like vitrines. Again, the theme of life and death cycle is vividly shown.
|In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991 – Room 1|
|In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991 – Room 2|
Flies and butterflies make another interesting polarity pair. They represent beauty and horror, good and evil. Black Sun looks like, at first glance, a black monochrome painting. It takes me a while to realize it’s actually a surface densely covered in nasty dead flies. It creates a stark contrast to the almost holy butterfly paintings. While butterflies represent resurrection, flies convey more negative associations of death and decay.
|Black Sun, 2004|
|Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II, 2006|
Lethality and glamour
Cigarette is a repeated motif in Hirst’s work. It’s the contrast between an unsmoked perfect cylinder and the provocation of disgust after it’s smoked and discarded that appeals Hirst. What’s more fascinating for Hirst is the fact that something so lethal has been glamourized by seductive imagery in the advertising industry for decades. Hirst gathers the contents of hundreds of ashtrays and intensify the reaction of disgust (visually and olfactorily), or presents cigarette butts lined along the shelves of a cabinet like a natural history exhibit. These pieces can be seen as contemporary memento mori. A reminder of the inevitability of death.
|The Abyss, 2008|
Structure and randomness
Hirst has created numerous paintings with spots varying from minute to monumental in size, and from half a spot to thousands in number. Typically, the spots are in a grid, all of the same size with the gaps between the spots the same size as the spots themselves. Going hand-in-hand with this hyper-rigid set of parameters is a seemingly random arrangement of colors. In fact, no single color is ever repeated in one painting. This consistent structure actually started in 1986 with a random arrangement of spots, a piece also included in the retrospective.
|Spot Painting, 1986|
The first animals that Hirst encased in formaldehyde were fish. In this piece he separates the items and arranges them on shelves in two cabinets: one with fish “swimming” left and the other to the right. It’s “for the purpose of understanding” only. But in reality, they are not so structured in nature.
|Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Right), 1991|
Religion and science
Butterflies’ connotation of resurrection brings Hirst’s elaborate butterfly paintings a special religious overtone. Many of them are arranged into complex patterns that resemble traditional stained glass church windows. On the other hand, Hirst extends his explorations of science in art. He makes cabinets filled with medicine or surgical instruments. There is also a blown up anatomical model standing outside at the plaza in front of Tate.
|Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven, 2007|
The polarity of religious and scientific themes are best combined in The Anatomy of an Angel. The beautifully carved white marble statue looks perfectly graceful from one angle, while the other side reveals bones, muscles, and a section of internal organs.
|The Anatomy of an Angel, 2008|
Pharmacy is a whole-room installation. Here the extensive clinical order of the cabinets filled with medicine packaging suggests the dominating power of modern medicine. But the fact that this is in an gallery where art and science have the same visual language sounds intriguing. “It would be great we can get people to believe in art the same way they believe in medicine,” Hirst once said. There are also four glass bottles with mysterious colored liquids. They represent the four elements found in old apothecaries: earth, air, fire, and water. The insect-o-cutor hanging in the middle is to “make a comparison of people being like flies” (referring to A Thousand Years). “You can only cure people for so long and then they’re going to die anyway.”
I have come to realize what is so fascinating about Damien Hirst’s work is the profound synergy of polarized notions that marries beauty and horror: life and death, lethality and glamour, structure and randomness, religious and science, flies and butterflies, good and evil, black and white. His Francis Bacon-like intensity, angst, dread, and passion have made him a prominent icon of his generation, and rocked me deeply inside.