Cigarette butts, live butterflies and a dead shark. No, we are not in a rubbish bin, a botanical garden or, indeed, an aquarium. This is the Tate Modern, and its latest star-attraction- a retrospective of the work of Damien Hirst. Call him what you like- artistic Einstein, entrepreneur or even imposter- but the man knows how to sell. But what is the secret ingredient in Hirst’s undeniably lucrative and controversial cocktail?
To many, his work seems quite pointedly aimed at those with more money than sense, his own stubborn disregard for the recession leading him to encrust a human skull with 8,601 glittering diamonds and sell it for the alleged price of £50m. Here, we may be so kind as to lend Hirst the benefit of the doubt. This may not be the shameless exploitation of excessive wealth and status many take it to be but, rather, a shrewd and ironic comment on the very nature of what he is doing. Viewed simply, the piece forms a very literal, and clever, image of ‘death by money’.
But perhaps we are being too generous. Yes, the man’s work is memorable, hauntingly so. It manages to create a very distinct and definite divide, among both critics and the public, between those who venerate and those who condemn. A cold indifference is overwhelming rare among anyone who has ever viewed a Hirst, and that, surely, is a sign that he has tapped into something in our consciousness that is, at the least, significant.
Now, take the shark, plunged into its prison of formaldehyde. The piece is enough to stop anyone in their tracks – iconic, worthless, monumental and insubstantial. Within the safe confines of the gallery, viewers are suddenly faced with their own mortality, raw, pungent and unavoidable. At least that was most likely Hirst’s objective if the work’s title- ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’- is anything to go by. This intended psychological penetration may succeed to move some, but are the hallowed halls that have become the home of Britain’s best contemporary art really the place for such ventures?
If this was the Natural History Museum, what we would be faced with would be merely a dead shark, preserved for biological posterity. But this is a Hirst, and we must stand before it in awe and reverence and, on the off chance that we should wish to see it adorn our homes, fork over something in the region of £8m.
This profound sensation of having been duped continues to loom over viewers, particularly when confronted with a work that features flies feeding upon the decomposing head of a cow, something that would perhaps be more at home on the compost heap of a farmyard. One thing is for sure- Monet this is not.
Yet, in an era when the very definition of ‘art’ is becoming progressively more fluid and all-inclusive, and the line between celebrity and consummate artist increasingly blurred, Hirst has undoubtedly found his niche, and indeed, his market. Those who attend the retrospective will either be drawn there by a genuine appreciation of the works, each a black-humoured gem in the art world’s new minimalist crown, or simply by an overpowering sense of curiosity towards the luckiest man in art. Are we in the presence of genius, or have we simply been conned by a man who laughs in the face of art as we once knew it, and behind the backs of his buyers? The jury is still out.