Pretty Vacant: There Are Only Two Good Works in the Tate's Damien Hirst Retrospective. How Far Can an Artist without Skill Stretch His Talent?

By Raine, Craig | New Statesman (1996), April 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Pretty Vacant: There Are Only Two Good Works in the Tate's Damien Hirst Retrospective. How Far Can an Artist without Skill Stretch His Talent?


Raine, Craig, New Statesman (1996)


In March 1986, I was in Australia at the Adelaide Writers' Week. One night at dinner, I was telling the outraged and incredulous Cuban novelist-in-exile Guillermo Cabrera Infante that Baudelaire had plagiarised his famous essay on Edgar Allen Poe from two essays in the Southern Literary Messenger by John R Thompson and John M Daniel. And that Daniel in turn had plagiarised his piece from Griswold's obituary of Poe.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose luggage had been lost several days before by Qantas, was preternaturally composed and charismatic in a rumpled linen safari suit. His only piece of clothing a paradox-soiled yet chic. He was also at a remove, chauvinistically silent, refusing to descend to English. "Nous causons au sujet de plagiarisme," explained Cabrera Infante. Robbe-Grillet was suddenly alert: "J'approve," he said crisply, "Je suis voleur." It was a strikingly original, counter-intuitive statement.

There are two-but only two-remarkable works in this Damien Hirst retrospective. One is A Thousand Years (1990). The title refers to Hitler's claim (to a British journalist in March 1934) that the Nazi Third Reich would last a thousand years. But the idea is stolen from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

It is in two glass sections. In the air is a storm of flies, a blizzard of black holes. The left-hand compartment contains a hollow, white cube with a circular hole in each visible plane. The pane dividing the sections has four holes, so that the gross, wrinkled meat-flies bred there can fly into the further section. Here, there is a partially flayed cow's skull on the floor, poised in a brown pool ofblood the colour of gravy--so viscous it looks as if it might be synthetic, like a magician's spill of ink, something you could peel off. The angry crimson skull has stiff, white eyelashes and sodden fur still on its muzzle. Its tongue protrudes, the colour of Irn-Bru, as if the thing were thinking hard. Above this head there is a blue insect-o-cutor and an angled tray filled with two stirring wedges of dying flies. The flies are dying like flies. Looking at this piece is like looking at eczema. It is the weight of numbers. Your brain itches.

Neither the title's characteristically glib, melodramatic allusion to the Third Reich, nor the debt to Golding, can affect the power of this piece-or its evident originality. I first saw this piece in "Sensation! ", the Saatchi show at the Royal Academy in London in 1997. I was unimpressed-because I understood only the concept, the realised idea, but resisted the actuality. Importantly there were then far fewer flies. A Thousand Years is now all actuality: the very texture, the unflinching feel and the flinch of disgust. It is gruesome and brilliant.

But the famous shark, shackled to its coffeebar-existentialist title-The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living-seems ever more dilapidated, more fairground sideshow, with every dowdy showing. What cliched menace it may once have theoretically possessed has evaporated. Not just yawning, but drowning-saved from going belly up only by its tough nylon threads-its front fins like stabilisers. I gave it a good long look and noticed that it seemed dusty. Next rime, some cleaning lady should hoover it. There is another, smaller, replacement shark, in better nick (The Kingdom, 2008)-but it is a tiddler and the loss of scale is fatal.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The other show-stopper is Pharmacy (1992) which owes debts to Warhol's use of Brillo packaging, something to Joseph Cornell, and something to those laborious, pedantic reconstructions by Ed Kienholz. This is a larger-than-life pharmacy down to its apothecary bottles on the counter filled with different coloured liquids-blue, red, lime and emerald. There is even a green, neon Hermes symbol. All this literalism is beside the point, however. Hirst, rather in the manner of Claes Oldenburg, has simply noticed how something ordinary and familiar has beauty and charisma. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Pretty Vacant: There Are Only Two Good Works in the Tate's Damien Hirst Retrospective. How Far Can an Artist without Skill Stretch His Talent?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.