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High Art Lite in the Darkest Hour

Emily Spears-Meers

Damien Hirst
In the darkest hour there may be light:
Works from Damien Hirst’s murderme collection

Serpentine Gallery, London
25 November 2006 – 28 January 2007

Although Damien Hirst and his every breath get miles of press in the British tabloid and other newspapers, critical appreciation of the work of Hirst and his generation has been scarce. This is particularly evident among post-YBA (Young British Artists), and artists in the other notable art worlds. New York, LA and Berlin—cities whose markets are sufficiently inflated to merit swathes of attention from not only their own but also foreign press—have dismissed British art in general with a slight sniff of disdain.

Eric C. Banks, writing in Artforum in January 2002, put his finger on the problem: ‘The notorious difficulty of writing about many of the Young British Artists has always been the Hobson’s choice of approaching them with sombre detachment and overshooting the runway or, alternatively, treating them on their own terms and never really going anywhere at all.’ This circularity has extended to next generation artists, British or otherwise, who seem loath to reference or engage in dialogue with their predecessors—not to mention with the surge of cash that has flooded the London art world, for better or for worse, since their coming.

From across the calming waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Thomas Crow, the British art historian now ensconced in the Getty’s cracked ivory towers, has made some lone, valiant attempts to tackle this conundrum. These have mostly taken the form of a Marxian analysis that foregrounds the evidence of social history within the work. In the case of Hirst alone, he has offered an awed take on his recent Mexican intervention. In general, however, the non-YBA British art world largely hangs its head in horror at the thought of acknowledging the bastard breed.

In the darkest hour there may be light therefore offered an opportunity to take a deep breath and be drawn in. It included a number of seminal works from the YBA-era, alongside their 1980s New York predecessors Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Haim Steinbach, as well as some predictably dismal tat from Banksy and his younger, and by the looks of it slightly lost, generation of British artists.

To quickly address the curating: since Hirst managed to catalyse the coming into being of the Young British Art world in the early 1990s, he has played a significant role in subsidising it, not to mention keeping Koons and a few secondary market dealers happy. His ‘murderme’ collection contains some fantastic work but, like most collections it contains some pretty dreadful efforts as well (such as Banksy: a more literal image-maker would be hard to find but, frankly, who would want to look?). The show was therefore a bit of a mess, not only in terms of quality but also with respect to its display. Items looked shoved into place with scant attention to size, scale, theme or attribute—but such sloppiness could have been exaggerated and thereby made more convincing, more satisfyingly, by making it less clear how exactly it is that Hirst differentiates between his obsessive collection of curiosities and art. Why not go for it and really clutter the Serpentine Gallery?

This style of curation is due, in part, to Hirst the phenomenon, as more than one newspaper reviewer pointed out: given his massive pulling power, the Serpentine needs the artist’s patronage more than he needs their floor space, and he can therefore curate as he sees fit. In fact, Hirst’s work in general, with its gleeful mass production and mass concatenation (think a thousand flies, a thousand spin paintings, a thousand years) could often do with a good edit. But perhaps that is somehow the point: he, like Warhol, has the ability and the brazen gumption to churn out as much as he wants—although perhaps he isn’t as much of a whore as Andy: he never solicited portraits of the great dictators as the ultimate Pop vixen did of Farah Dibah and the Shah.

Hirst’s closest contemporaries, Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas, with whom he collaborated most recently on the 2004 Tate show ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, both come up trumps at the Serpentine—and another look at their work sheds a clearer light on the terms under which a critical engagement with the YBAs might be negotiated. Lucas’s Percival (2006) is a bronze replica of a tchotchke of a horse-drawn cart carrying a massive cement gherkin. Blown up to ten times its size, coloured in so that it looks exactly like its ceramic forebear, and plonked on the lawn in front of the gallery, Percy manages to be both hilarious and hardcore. Such a combination is present in all of Lucas’s best work; inside, her Sunday Sport collages, cigarette sculptures, and banged-up car with crude wanking arm mechanism offer a mini-retrospective of the artist.

Fairhurst’s gorillas also stand out. Pietà (1996), his photographic self-portrait, quotes the famous Michaelangelo painting in the Vatican (inter alia from the art historical canon). In this version, however, the artist, who takes on the role of Christ, is cradled by an empty gorilla suit, deftly conjuring pathos through a visual joke. Likewise his life-size sculpture of a bronze gorilla, A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling II (2003), who looks in front of him seemingly dumbfounded at his left arm, which appears to have dropped off.

Both Fairhurst and Lucas know how to deliver an uneasy punchline; Gavin Turk’s soiled sleeping bag minus tramp, installed unceremoniously on the Serpentine’s floor, also fits in this category. It is these artists’ adept manipulation of the joke that ought to prompt a critical appreciation of the poor little YBA paragons. The gags are subversive—it is high art lite—and as we all know, you make your victim laugh before you deliver the sucker punch… all the way to the bank if need be.

Emily Spears Meers is a writer, translator and equestrienne, and an MPhil student in international relations at Balliol College, Oxford.