DAMIEN HIRST AT TATE MODERN LONDONAugust 20th, 2012
I’ll be honest – when I booked tickets to Damien Hirst’s first full-scale exhibition at London’s Tate Modern – I expected to be disappointed. While not a huge art aficionado, all I knew about Hirst was his rock-star reputation, severed animals and diamond skulls. I saw him as more of a master of installations than a modern artist – but how wrong I was!
This was hands-down the best art exhibition I have ever experienced. Bristol-born, Leeds-raised Hirst has taken over nearly 10 rooms in London’s Tate Modern gallery, with the clinical white spaces providing the perfect backdrop to his jaw-dropping works, most inspired by death and decay. First up we get a taste of Hirst’s early work, such as his first ‘spot’ paintings – scientifically accurate canvases covered with coloured dots, each of the same size and spacing and prone to making you slightly cross-eyed if you stare long enough! We also see a photograph of a young Damien Hirst posing with the head of a corpse in the anatomy department of his University. If you think that’s morbid – wait till you hear what came next!
Before I get to the real show-stopping pieces, one of my favourite elements of the exhibition was Hirst’s tribute to his Mum’s medicine cabinet. Apparently a young Damien was amazed that his Mum held such a faith in modern medicine, yet she had no regard or understanding of art. This theme is played out in several rooms, the first featuring a standard-sized medicine cabinet with all manner of pills and potions, and culminating in a massive room with walls flanked by pharmacy cabinets and a doctors desk and notes. Peering through the glass doors of the floor-to-ceiling cabinets, we wondered what chemical naughties Hirst had included in the displays!
But the real crowd-puller of this exhibition was Damien Hirst’s work with dead animals. Having visited Shoreditch eatery Tramshed last month, which has a Hirst-preserved cow and cockerel in the middle of the busy dining room, I was eager to see these works up close. Hirst breaks us in gently, showing two skinned sheeps heads in formaldehyde – not so shocking, but a little disturbing. Then we see a woolly sheep preserved in its entirety, looking almost peaceful in the blue liquid. Moving on, we walk between a calf which has been split in half and displayed in two separate cabinets, showing the innards of each part in all their gory details. Next to the calf, a full cow has been split in the same fashion, and visitors queue up to walk between both halves and look at the innards for as long as they can stomach! And if that wasn’t disturbing enough, we walk towards a huge glass container with a severed cows head and thousands of flies buzzing around. This work saw Damien Hirst breed maggots inside the case, which feed on the cows head and multiply – a case of art creating life and one of those works that you can’t help but be fascinated by. We also saw a shark and a dove in mid-flight preserved in formaldehyde – the dove in particular was stunning with its wings fanned out to perfection.
In stunning contract, Hirst shows us true beauty in his exhibition alongside the deathly gore. We are ushered in to a humid room which is hung with huge canvases covered in caterpillar pupae, and the air is filled with beautiful real-life butterflies. They feed on fresh fruit on tables, sway gently on the walls, and at one point, land on my yellow top – making me part of the art installation! In the final rooms, we also view amazing stained-glass window style artworks created completely from butterfly wings and see huge display cabinets filled with diamonds. To balance things out, Hirst throws in a giant round canvas covered in dead flies entitled ‘The Black Sun’.
We walked out of the exhibition in a trance, trying to get our heads around what we had seen. Say what you like about Damien Hirst and his millions, but the man knows how to put on a show. The exhibition runs until 7 September – if you’re in London, it is not to be missed.