Damien Hirst – Tate Modern

I went away at the weekend to go and see my favourite artists work on exhibition at the Tate Modern in London!  For uni, part of our summer work was to visit an exhibition and write a review of it! So, here is the review I wrote (and have just finished!!!)…

 

Damien Hirst

Tate Modern

4th April – 9th Sept 2012

The first thing that hits you when you enter the exhibition of Damien Hirst’s work at the Tate Modern is the smell.  Something lingers in the air, something that is vaguely familiar, the smell of household paint, then a musty odour of cigarettes, a chemical smell that I can’t place and something else.  Musty, old, decaying…Death, it’s that smell that follows you around, through the 14 rooms that house works of Damien’s, from his earliest spot painting to the room that contains cabinets of manufactured diamonds.  It seems that themes of death, religion and science are everywhere; you become aware of your own mortality, especially in room 3 when you are faced with that shark in formaldehyde, otherwise known as “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.  Pictures viewed in books and images of this installation do not do it justice, the glass acts to create an illusion of movement, causing the tiger shark inside to move about, curve and follow you around, your mind screams out that it is still alive through the movements it has tracked but common sense kicks in and you can see that it is dead.

There is noise too, not just in the visitors passing through the exhibits but the motors that turn the Spin Paintings in room 8, which also houses 2 pieces of work that rely on air, “Loving In a World Of Desire” – a beach ball suspended mid-air above a brightly painted box that houses an air blower, and the hum of the hairdryer in “What Goes Up Must Come Down”.  The only room that seems church quiet is room 14 which houses the work “The Incomplete Truth” – a dove suspended in a tank of formaldehyde and a pale spot painting “Remembrance”.

Logic wants to work overtime when viewing the spot paintings that are exhibited in room 1 and 2.  In room 1 the earliest spot painting can be seen, it is not clinically done as the later spot paintings are, clean rows and columns, the first is a messy, dribbly, affair with spots of paint marked as splodges that run down the canvas and appear still wet, having that glossy, wet look of household gloss paint.  But from this you can see the ideas already forming for later works which can be viewed in room 2.  These later works cause my eyes to dart about the canvas, trying to seek out patterns and a logic, which is a fairly impossible task as no two colours are exactly the same and no two colours appear side by side, or above and below, twice in any of the spot paintings.  Given that some of these paintings are huge, and the dots tiny, that is no mean feat.  It is clear to see how Damien developed his ideas and his love of colour in these works.

The first whiff of death that confronts us comes from “A Thousand Years”, housed in room 2.  It consists of 2 tanks side by side and joined, one houses a white box with holes in it that contains maggots, they hatch and fly away, making their way to the attached tank which holds a skinned head of a cow, hanging from the ceiling is a fly zapper with a tray below it.  The flies are drawn here, crawling over the head, feeding, reproducing and dying, the unlucky ones getting zapped to death before their bodies are caught on the tray below.  This work questions our life cycle and mortality; it brings everything into simplicity, and creates a cycle of its own.

Flies feature in Damien’s work further along the exhibition, in room12, where “Black Sun” hangs on the wall, the same smell of death and decay hovering around it.  This work is made of dead flies and resin, which until closer inspection it is hard to tell, at first I thought it may have been tarmac as it had the same texture but the smell gave it away.  It is hard to look at this work in a joyous way, it is a grim illustration of death, there is nothing happy about it, not like with other works of Damien’s which explore death.  It leaves you wondering about what happens once you have left this earth.

In contrast are the murals made to look like stained glass windows taken from churches.  These bright, pretty pieces are in fact, made up from butterfly wings that have been pressed into wet paint.  There is a different feeling to these works, even though they contain dead parts of insects, like “Black Sun” they have a joyous feel to them, one that seems to give hope after death.

Other images of death can be seen in “Mother and Child Divided” (room 9) where a cow and her calf have been cut from head to tail, dividing them into left and right parts which have been placed in four separate tanks.  The title of this work plays on the relationship between mother and baby and also the brutal reality that they have been divided, left from right, right from left.  It is possible to walk through the cow and calf and view all their insides and outsides.  This way of exhibiting felt much like the way things are displayed in biology, so that you can learn about the parts of the animal and get a good look at everything.

Further work of Damien’s which touch upon science are “Hymn”, a giant sculpture of an anatomical structure of the human body, the first work to be viewed by visitors at Tate Modern.  This work is placed outside the main entrance and is viewable from quite a distance.  This links in to Damien’s fascination with pharmaceuticals and surgical implements which can be seen throughout the exhibition, namely in room 10 where installations of cabinets full of surgical implements are on show and also in rooms 2(medicine cabinet – “Sinner”, pill cabinet “Lullaby”), and room 10 (Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology), not to mention the room set up as an actual pharmacy (room 7).  On viewing these works I couldn’t help but find contradiction to the view that Damien’s work is all about death, surely medicines, teaching aids and surgical appliances are about curing, prolonging and helping survival?

The circle of life has already been addressed in Damien’s work “A Thousand Years” displayed in room2.  This is re-addressed in rooms 5 and 6 where the idea remains the same but is illustrated with butterflies.  “In And Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)” and “In And Out Of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ash Trays)” is a two part work, room 5 houses canvases painted with bright colours and decorated with dead butterflies wings, and room 6.  In room 6 canvases hang on the walls from which huge butterflies hatch, their amniotic fluids that seep out when they hatch, drip down the canvas leaving coloured stains.  The butterflies move round the room gracefully swooping through the air, feeding on fruit that is left out, resting on the plants, before dying.  This work, although on the same thought lines as “A Thousand Years” seems more beautiful and poignant an illustration of the life cycle, the flies in “A Thousand Years” seeming more violent a description of life and death.

Death and religion are visited one final time in the quietest room of the exhibition, room 14.  This is where “Remembrance” and “The Incomplete Truth” are housed.  As you walk through from room 13 into the doorway of room 14 you see a dove, wings outstretched, hovering in a tank of formaldehyde.  The dove is symbolic in religion as hope, peace and the Holy Spirit, behind it is the palest spot painting edged in gold.  It is a beautiful sight, serene and peaceful; it offers a hope that there is more to life than just living and dying and is a brilliant way to finish the exhibition.

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