Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern. A journey from radical artist to brand ambassador.

  Damien Hirst's retrospective at Tate Modern has for the first time in this country given us the opportunity to consider the artists output and assess whether he really was an enfant terrible and if he really is an overpriced and overexposed artist.
Hirst and his contemporaries undeniably shaped the modern art scene of 90’s London. They arrogantly blazed their trail from art colleges and into mainstream media. They simply could not be ignored. Hirst was at the forefront getting their work seen and then eventually becoming the figurehead who the media latched onto. His work backed up the arrogance - provocative but with serious questions about death and mortality.
Fast forward to 2012 and at this major show one wonders how it all went wrong.
In some senses it all went right for Damien Hirst, the prices went through the roof and buyers were eating out of the perfectly manicured hands of the gallery owners. The amount of money changing hands is not the problem per se but what is the problem is that his work has become less powerful as a result. The work on display does feel uneven and that’s ignoring the fact that there is much missing, including the much criticised paintings from The Wallace Collection show. There are real highlights, A Thousand Years 1990 is a stark, raw work stripped down the barest elements, - steel, glass, flies, maggots, MDF, insect-o-cutor, cow's head, sugar and water. The list emphasises the sheer confrontational element of Hirsts early work. The juxtaposition was daring and the effect was powerful. The issues raised about life and death were being shoved in our faces and the effect was at times shocking and it certainly made waves in the art world. In 1992 The Saatchi Gallery exhibited The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the iconic shark suspended in a tank. Today the effect is diminished - the shark has shrivelled and the work seems smaller on a wooden floor in the Tate as opposed to the bright white walls and floors at Saatchis gallery.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991 by Damien Hirst

In between the highlights there is also repetition which is certainly a Hirst trait.
The repetition does work in his pharmacy series, the scale of medicinal use in todays society and what is says about the solutions and answers we seek in response to our own fragile mortality. Of course he repeats and multiplies butterflies and of course his spots. This where the repetition surges into mass production. After personally creating 20 spot paintings it is now known that there have been 1400 created by his assistants. This large scale production was part of the development of Hirst as a brand.
Hirst was part of the whirlwind of 90’s celebrity culture and it seemed to be an ideal opportunity to extend the Hirst brand. It was in 1997 he launched Pharmacy a restaurant in Notting Hill filled with his artwork and attracting A list celebrities. The venture set up with PR supremo Matthew Freud lasted until 2003 when investors called time on its existence. Freud opined "There's always a danger when things represent a cultural moment that they will eventually fall. In the end you become a sacred cow. Culture moves on and it doesn't take you with it." 

Pharmacy 1992 by Damien Hirst

Around this time Hirst’s affairs were taken over by accountant Frank Dunphy who realised it was possible to renegotiate the percentages galleries were taking and increase the artists takings. In effect the middle men were being taken out and Hirst was getting even closer to the art market and his customer base. Business was booming and he was the darling of the art world. The later work reflects that of a luxury brand. It’s all glitz – gleaming, sleak, dazzling and reassuringly expensive. It has also become empty. Beneath the shiny veneer there is little being said, there is no rawness in the beauty, no provocation, no glorious juxtaposition of materials.
One hopes that Hirst is having a laugh at the absurdity of it all and he will return to what I think he does best. His ability to shock and show that beauty can be seen in the most unlikely of places and in the most unlikely of moments. In the years to come we will know whether Hirst is a radical artist at heart or whether his vision has become sanitised  and incapable of recapturing the rawness and beauty
that was once his trademark.

I Am Become Death Shatterer of Worlds 2006