Tate Modern, London
4 April – 9 September 2012
The title of Damien Hirst’s 1991 piece, Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding, is a useful way of thinking about the retrospective exhibit currently taking up a floor and the turbine hall of the Tate Modern. In this work, Hirst exhibited around 40 fish of various species, separately suspended in formaldehyde and encased in Perspex. Neatly arranged on shelves in a vitrine, they all faced in the same direction as if swimming in a shoal. Although individual specimens, they are ordered so that naturalists and collectors might better understand them. A retrospective works in a similar way, arranging the “isolated elements” of a 25-year career in an attempt to understand the artist. Retrospectives work on the presupposition that we can trace central concerns, themes, or images through the career of an individual. However, although Hirst is unapologetically concerned with sequences, repetitions, and patterns, this exhibit is problematic in its overt attempts to put a life’s work “in the same direction”—an impulse, in Hirst’s work, often in danger of oversimplification or failure.
The Tate sequence begins with With Dead Head (1991), a portrait of the artist as a 16 year old, grinning, in a comic version of Hamlet with skull, by the grotesque head of a corpse in the Manchester city mortuary. We are invited to connect this young man with the one who will behead a cow, saw a calf in half, and cover a skull with millions of pounds of diamonds. This aspect of a retrospective is particularly interesting in relation to Hirst. For all that certain reviewers suspect Hirst would pickle a human corpse in formaldehyde if he had the nerve, strip back the derisive tone and they are right. Hirst is endlessly concerned with how to record a human life, whether he is reducing its scale in the microcosms A Thousand Years (1990) and In and Out of Love (1991); fleshing-out a life with a build-up of objects (witness the cigarette ends in Crematorium (1996) and Dead Ends Died Out, Explored (1993)); or displaying prescriptions in medicine cabinets (which, looked at closely, resemble squat little bodies where the pills at the top treat illnesses of the head and the medicines at the bottom are for the feet). There is a persistent sense that Hirst’s works are missing a human body. The colourful, plastic, anatomical models are exposed as unfit surrogate humans, and it is in the surgery room, where medical implements are stacked, polished, and sharpened in neat arrangements as if out of use for too long, that we really sense the lack of a human body. The surgical instruments of Doubt (1994), Lapdancer (2006), and Invasion (2009) need a body; they become aesthetic objects because their utility has been stripped away. Where Walter Benjamin worried about modernity stripping away the aura from the art object, Hirst has reversed the process, investing tools with the aura of the gallery. But they shouldn’t be in a gallery; they should be in the operating theatre. Reflections abound in Hirst’s works, yet in this room, as your face appears in the metal saws, scalpels, and clamps, it seems as if Hirst chose his materials (mirrors, glass, diamonds, metals, Perspex) so that we might find our way into his works.
It is the empty chair within the vitrine of The Acquired Inability to Escape (1991) where this trick is most successful. The immediately recognisable, rotatable, height-adjustable office chair is one of the many empty seats in Hirst’s works, implying the presence of an invisible human occupant. The installation is particularly positioned so that we encounter it in the queue for the butterfly room, and it is this perhaps chance location that the piece takes on another dimension. Waiting in line, shifting impatiently to convey a frustrated irritation at those confidently pushing to the front, you stare, increasingly uncomfortably, at the exaggerated version of your own predicament across the room. Although the extent of Hirst’s involvement in the layout of the exhibition is unknown, we realise our own inability to escape with a comic timing that would, I’m sure, have raised a smile.
There are other, more intentionally interactive works in this exhibit. You can walk through a cow sawn in half, a room full of butterflies, and a replica pharmacy. However, a different kind of interaction comes from this exhibit’s interior logic. One of the most provocative and thrilling works on display is A Thousand Years (see above). Describing this piece is difficult: inside a large glass vitrine, hundreds of maggots hatch out of a white box, fly out, find their way through holes in a Perspex partition to a second chamber in which they feed on a cow’s head surrounded by its congealing blood. Some of the flies then die in the “insect-o-cuter” hanging above them, forming a revolting life cycle in miniature. Moving away from the smeared vitrine walls and faint smell of rotting flesh, aware of the glowing insect-o-cutor still hanging behind you, the layout of the exhibit stages another darkly comic trick. Emerging from the butterfly room into Pharmacy (1992), a replica pharmacy installed in one room of the gallery, once your eyes have moved from another eerily abandoned desk to the rows and rows of pills lining the walls, you look up and realise you have been standing beneath another insect-o-cutor. Its sudden appearance, freed from the reassuring distance of the vitrine, is a startling moment of realisation that the pharmacy is an echo of A Thousand Years’s second compartment. This retrospective is unique in that these two works would not normally have been experienced so close together. Perhaps, if encountering Pharmacy in isolation, a Hirst enthusiast would have cast their mind back to pictures of A Thousand Years; however, bringing them so close together, as only a retrospective can, makes explicit the connection between our experience with the mini life cycle of the flies. The pharmacy provides us with the drugs that act as an impermanent means for escape from sickness and pain; we shuffle in, keep our heads down, ignore—or attempt to ignore—the insect-o-cutor.
Hirst’s Natural History series poses further questions about how to represent a life. Do we understand anything more about living creatures through observing them pickled and preserved in formaldehyde? The series presents specimens preserved in liquids, a practice employed by natural history and anatomical museums. On a conceptual level, such displays present lifeforms in a suspended, inanimate state, as if frozen in time. The preserved objects have the authoritative look of a museum display in which each is preserved as a document of truth, but rather than having interpretive labels, Hirst’s ironical and metaphorical titles provoke consideration. One of the most affecting of the natural history series is the final piece in the exhibition, The Incomplete Truth (2006): a dove, suspended mid-flight in blue.
It recalls a poem by William Carlos Williams concerned, like Hirst’s works, with art’s potential to project a continuous present:
Bird with outstretched wings
your image this November
to a stop
miraculously fixed in my
The irony of this piece, and of Hirst’s art generally, is its fragility. The dove is fixed, but not permanently. Hirst has said that formaldehyde is used to “communicate an idea”; and if life, in Hirst’s works, is often presented as a futile struggle against decay and the onset of death, the formaldehyde pieces remind us that, even in death, time is not arrested. The dove looks alive and beautiful, but if removed from its solution will swiftly disintegrate. The two parts of the installation In and Out of Love (1991) are a useful way of thinking about Hirst’s works. The first room shows bright canvasses with butterflies embedded in the paint. The little insects are dead and on a canvas; they are literally, as well as metaphorically, pieces of art. However, in the second room, butterflies emerge from chrysalises sewn into the canvas and fly around us.
These two rooms represent two ways of thinking about art. You can have art as process, a life cycle, something that is like performance art as we’ve come to think of it, and you can have art as an object, which is static and unfaltering. Hirst’s works are in the same balance; some, like For the Love of God, will remain in circulation forever, yet some are more precarious, requiring a kind of formaldehyde to keep them alive. Hirst has made the point himself, comparing the diamond skull and A Thousand Years:
More than the fly piece, I can imagine a very long life for it [the skull], whereas the fly piece is always something that will need my involvement, need my upkeep—it’s high-maintenance. I can imagine the fly piece 20 years after I’m dead, gathering dust in the attic when nobody knows how to put it together. It becomes a myth very quickly. The skull, even if it’s in a robber’s handbag, is going to be out there somewhere doing something.
Unlike the diamond skull which will always exist “out there somewhere”, the shark, sheep, flies, and butterflies are pieces which require skill to put together, that need to be assembled on site. Exhibiting Hirst isn’t like nailing a few pictures to the wall. The works haven’t been shipped in ready-made: cows have been dipped into formaldehyde, cabinets filled with endless pills, wallpaper designed, thousands of butterflies and flies specially bred, and a shark flown in from the other side of the world. One of the spot paintings is painted onto the walls of the gallery, making explicit the ephemeral nature of these works. That painting will not be visible again after the exhibition’s closing date. Damien Hirst runs until 9 September; take the opportunity to see these transient works while you can.
Lucy Fielder is reading for a MSt in English and American Studies at Mansfield College, Oxford.