‘The walls of the art world are being scaled, you feel, by a cheeky monkey, who is laughing at the past, laughing at life, laughing at death, laughing at other artists, laughing at the Tate itself, and at its pious art-historical preferences’. Waldemar Januszczak
This exhibition is the first major retrospective of Hirst’s work to be held in London, providing a unique opportunity to trace the development of the career of Britain’s most notorious not so young anymore artists and showmen, and to experience some of his most iconic and disturbingly deathly works up close.
The exhibition begins with a selection of Hirst’s earliest work dating from his student days first at Jacob Kramer’s College in Leeds and later at Goldsmiths in London and include his first endearingly imprecise spot painting (dating from 1986) on hardboard propped up against the gallery wall. Such energy, such personality is lost in the later spot paintings which appear unremarkable, dull and desperately lacking in individuality. Also on display are eight pastel painted pans, a delightfully ingenious work dating from 1987 and a colourfully minimalist collection of painted cardboard boxes reminiscent of the abstract creations of the Russian Suprematists as well as work on show at Charles Saatchi’s Boundary Road establishment. Boxes (1988) was originally shown at Freeze, the now legendary 1988 exhibition organised by Hirst and fellow Goldsmiths students in a disused London Port Authority warehouse at Surrey Docks, which, with the support of Michael Craig-Martin, helped to launch the careers of several of its exhibiting artists which included Mat Collishaw, Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy and Fiona Rae.
A photograph of a teenage Hirst grinning maniacally cheek by jowel with the head of a dead man whose grotesquely squashed features risibly resemble those of Winston Churchill. Taken in the anatomy laboratories at Leeds University, such an image foreshadows Hirst’s later confrontations with mortality, revealing a sense of humour that is blacker than black and an insatiable, monstrously morbid interest in death.
Hirst’s medicine cabinets, vast displays of painted pills and eerily sterile and starkly lit ‘Pharmacy’ (1992) prompt reflection on our reliance on and dangerously determined faith in modern medicine, products which more often than not are purely palliative, merely prolonging life in order to evade the inevitable, death. Also on display is Hirst’s violently visceral work entitled ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990), a glass vitrine at once buzzing with flies and strewn with their corpses in which is placed the flayed and bloodily slain head of a cow. Despite having seen it before this piece still for me, has the power to shock, sending me reeling and really rather queasily over to the celebrated shark in a tank, otherwise known as ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ suspended in icy blue formaldehyde. There is a strange serenity about this piece, due in part perhaps to the fact that my sheer familiarity with the work has blunted its bite.
Other of Hirst’s works designed to shock and to disgust include ‘Mother and Child Divided’ (1993) a bisected cow and calf presented across four separate vitrines is according to artist, intended to intrigue, to offer the view the opportunity of looking scientifically, ‘the work should attract and repel you at the same time’; and ‘Crematorium’ (1996) a pungent pit filled with hundreds of rank and reeking cigarette butts, a messy reminder that smoking is a morbid habit, the inevitability of the little death of a lit cigarette mimicking in Hirst’s words, a ‘mini life cycle’.
In contrast, Hirst’s evidently evangelical butterfly paintings, ‘Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven’ (2007) are undeniably dazzling, beautiful, kaleidoscopic creations evocative of medieval stained glass windows insistent too of the inherent fragility of life, the ‘vast moth-eaten… brocade/ Created to pretend we never die’.
The visual assault does not end here, however, and it is now that we are confronted by the black and densely fly encrusted surface of ‘Black Sun’ (2004), a repulsive, hellish sight. I don’t stop for long before blinking, awestruck amid the eye-watering splendour of room 13’s meticulously designed, diamond filled gold cabinets, outblinged only by ‘For the Love of God’ (2007) a life-size platinum cast of a human skull thought to date from the 18th century pavé set with 8,601 diamonds and housed in a black cube in the Turbine Hall shrouded in darkness.
The last time I saw so much Hirst on display was at Sotheby’s viewing rooms on Bond Street in 2008 prior to the infamous auction that confirmed Hirst’s single handed, demonic and indefatigable ability to manipulate the art market, however unlike the glut of spot, spin and butterfly paintings on show then, the Tate’s curators have been careful to pick and choose, rendering a prolix and often unquestionably repetitive career concise and clearly outlined. I leave feeling as though I have experienced a relentless series of visceral thrills and a variety of ugly feelings, shock, morbid curiosity, disgust and hypochondriacal paranoia. A well-orchestrated, meticulously designed exhibition of the work to date of this at once much-maligned and globally revered, multi-millionaire master of doom.