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.
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. …