Lucian Freud once commented to Damien Hirst when he saw his work ‘A Thousand Years’: “I think you started with the final act, my dear.” Was Freud right in his comment that Hirst had already made his best work at the beginning of his career? Tate Modern’s survey on Hirst’s 25 year career so far offers the audience an opportunity to determine whether Freud was correct.
Hirst’s iconic works, ‘A Thousand Years’, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ and ‘Mother and Child Divided’ form the horizontal axis of the exhibition. This ‘trilogy’ was produced at the beginning of the Leeds born artist’s career, 1990, 1991, 1993 – Hirst’s halcyon days.
In chronological order, one first encounters ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990), Hirst’s gripping enactment of a life cycle. It consists of two connected glass vitrines wherein flies breed in and circle around a rotting cow’s head lying in blood. Above the cow’s head hangs an insect-o-cutor, which is more familiarly found in a butcher’s shop (well not as large) to electrocute the flies.
The work triggers a rollercoaster of emotional responses, ranging from shocking, macabre, disconcerting through profound, fascinating, stimulating to poignant, serene and poetic. It gets under your skin and stimulates a multitude of senses. Through a small ventilator made in the glass is it possible to smell death. Two young girls in front of me smelled it and I didn’t question their judgement as they yelled in unison “disgusting”. Looking at all these flies can give you an itchy feeling as though a fly has escaped the vitrine and is trying to find shelter on your neck. Also, one can imagine hearing ominous David Lynchian soundscapes or reflective ambient music by Brian Eno, who presented the Turner Prize to Hirst in 1995.
Adjacent to ‘A Thousand Years’ stands Hirst’s most renowned work, which also features an animal: the shark in formaldehyde. Again the work pulls on various emotions ranging from spectacular to frightening and beautiful. The title of the work sounds like a book written by an eminent philosopher: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, but is actually a line from an essay Hirst wrote as a student.
It’s an example of Hirst’s wondrous, intriguing titles that he gives to his works. Other examples are ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’, ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding’ and ‘Away from the Flock’.
In one of our earlier posts on exhibition titles, Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery, commented on Hirst’s titles: “They are great titles… interesting ominous loops. They are somehow between a music song and a poem. I think they are quite enigmatic and they make you think”.
‘Mother and Child Divided’ is another example of a fantastic title, and the final episode of the trilogy. It comprises four glass walled tanks, containing two halves of a cow, each bisected and preserved in formaldehyde solution. As there is half a meter between the two halves it is possible to walk through the sculpture and studying these animals’ innards – it feels like an anatomy lesson.
When he was teenager Hirst visited a morgue in Leeds with a friend who took a picture of a laughing Hirst bending over to position his head next to a dead head (The black and white picture is exhibited in first room of the show). At that time Hirst was already interested and fascinated by human cadavers and had gathered a collection of books on pathology.
Death and mortality became the central theme of Hirst’s work. He once commented, in an interview with Calvin Tomkins, “Death is an unacceptable idea, so the only way to deal with it is to be detached or amused”. He explores his theme not only with animals but also with medicine cabinets that feature surgical instruments or prescription drugs.
‘Sinner’ is Hirst’s first medicine cabinet that exhibits the personal prescriptions his grandmother gave to him before she died. The cabinets should be regarded as metaphors for the human body and the type of drugs in them reveal the conditions from which the person is suffering.  
‘Lapdancer’ (2006) features an extensive selection of surgical instruments displayed in vitrines of stainless steel that would make Beverly and Elliot Mantle, the twin gynecologists in ‘Dead Ringers’ or Christian Szell, the sadistic dentist in ‘Marathon Man’, salivate. The exhibition leaflet says the work suggests “the clinical environment of the operating theatre and invasive surgical procedures”. As with all of Hirst’s works, the execution is high-standard, but viewing the work a remark of the artist Grayson Perry, that he made in an episode of ‘Imagine’, drummed at the back of my mind. Surrounded by his satirical ceramic pots in his studio Perry said, “It used to be you built a gallery in which to put significant objects, now you put insignificant objects, into a gallery in order to give them significance”. I wonder if this is the case in this exhibit. Are we not just looking at a medical trade display model that belongs in a showroom wholesale warehouse in an industrial area?
The amount of exhibits in the survey is modest: around 70. There could have been (much) more spot paintings, spin paintings and butterfly works, as Hirst has produced a large volume of these type of works in his career (or supervised as some of these works are produced by assistants). Ann Gallagher, the curator of the exhibition, however, has done the audience a service by editing Hirst work down to the core.
There could have been more to exhibit if Hirst had used his (undeniable) artistic talents to further develop himself as an artist and break new ground. The artist, however, has chosen to develop his commercial talents (also undeniable) as he focuses his energies on building the ‘Damien Hirst’ brand. This, however, merely involves tiresome repetitions of his ideas purely for commercial exploitation.
Despite this, Hirst ‘trilogy’, does belong in a gallery space and with one of these works he had already accomplished something at the beginning of his career that other artists will never achieve during their entire career. “Every artist, if they really want to have a full on career, they got to do a celebrity artefact at some point like Damien Hirst with his “shark” and Antony Gormley with his “Wings of the North”, Grayson Perry commented in ‘Imagine’.
In the catalogue of the exhibition Hirst comments on being an artist: “If I’m going to be an artist, I don’t want to be one that just occasionally gets it right”. His survey shows Hirst occasionally gets it right; indeed, when he gets it right, he gets it damn right!
Thus, Freud is correct with his comment that Hirst started with the final act. But, as Hirst is only 46 years old, he has time on his side to prove us all wrong.
Written by Thierry Somers
Picture: Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years 1990 (installation view), Glass, steel, silicone rubber, painted MDF, insect-ocutor, cow’s head, blood, flies, maggots, metal dishes, cotton wool, sugar and water, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012; Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991, Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012; Damien Hirst, Mother and Child Divided (installation view) 
exhibition copy 2007 (original 1993) 
Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, acrylic, monofilament, stainless steel, cow, calf and formaldehyde solution Tate, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *