Magazine article Sculpture

LONDON: Damien Hirst

Magazine article Sculpture

LONDON: Damien Hirst

Article excerpt

Tate Modern

When I walked into Tate Modern for Damien Hirst's retrospective, I was very positive and full of expectations, but I leftwith contradictory thoughts-not about Hirst's work per se, but about the value of an anthological exhibition devoted to his work. In his sculptures and paintings, Hirst achieves high formal perfection, a special kind of beauty that represents the most important experience of life-death. For this reason, his work can be difficult to take in: even though there can be beauty in horror, no one wants to think seriously and straightforwardly about this painful subject.

Hirst deals with the fact of mortality, and he does so by going straight to the point. We perceive that, for him, life has no purpose, death no redemption. His idea of death doesn't include a god balancing despair with a transcendent "reason." In Hirst's nihilistic view, there is no sense of causality or explanation behind the human condition. The "meaning" of the "walk" is the walk itself.

Hirst does not invite participation or interaction with his works; we are mere spectators, and our feelings may be compared to the conjoined repulsion and empathy we experience in front of death. It is shocking to face death, even if it is the only certainty we have in life. We might refuse to think about it, but Hirst forces us to face it in its physical reality. His work is not shocking, it is natural. And he doesn't need to confront us with a dead body. I was as disturbed by The Acquired Inability to Escape (a large, sealed, double vitrine containing a desk, chair, ashtray, and packet of cigarettes) this time as I was when I first saw it more than 20 years ago. I did not have the same deep response to a second, smaller version of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), the infamous shark suspended in formaldehyde. The original carries a message of hopelessness and sad, useless aggression. The newer work does not communicate real emotion; we realize that it is a "clone" with a theatrical message.

It is different when Hirst forces us to stop, share his thoughts, and become part of them. A Thousand Years is extremely powerful, bewitching, repulsive, cruel, and aggressive. After 22 years, this graphic vanitas display containing a cow's head, flies, and other elements is still surprising: it represents destiny. …

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