Damien Hirst at Tate Modern – don’t judge him by today’s standards

Posted on July 9, 2012


This is my first blog post in about six months. There’s a reason for this. Something very unpleasant happened to me a year ago which has had a fairly devastating effect on my creative work. This has leached through over time and it’s only with hindsight that I’ve realised just how damaging it’s been. I may or may not go into more detail about this. (FWIW, it wasn’t a physical attack. Isn’t it funny how I feel I need to reassure you of this, as if other forms of attack can’t do harm.)

But anyway. Last week I had a free afternoon, so I decided to go out. I’ve been doing a pretty good impression of a one-woman three musketeers recently, jumping from rock to rock with my trusty sword. I need a break, truth be told. So I decided to go and check out the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern.

People enjoy being rude about Hirst, partly, I have no doubt, because he’s very rich now. A bit like Tracey Emin, his career has woven itself in and out of my life, and my media attention. I sort of remember the shark and the media kerfuffle, and it all seems to come hand in hand with Blur vs Oasis, and post-ironic union jacks. In fact, now I look, the shark was created in 1991, a whole four years before Blur v Oasis. Perhaps 1991 was a very culturally unaware year for me – I was doing a job that didn’t suit me at all. (OK, it was fucking vile.) In 1992, the year the shark was first exhibited, I had left London for a somewhat toxic country sabbatical. (OK, an abusive relationship.)

A bit later in the 90s, I created a sort of living artwork in my bathroom, of empty pill bottles (originally prescribed to me) all along the edge of the bath, and weird newspaper cuttings on the wall. The pill bottles fell into the bath with some regularity, and gradually became marked by deposits from the very hard local water in London W9.

But Hirst. Even just going into this exhibition brought on some melancholy memories of my deep, elevator cage-like depressions in the 90s, alternating with writing books and performing at spoken word events, and lots of drink and drugs.

His early stuff is executed with housepaint, which was a medium also used by Gary Hume. The spot paintings, some of which have no single colour alike, put me in mind of today’s Pantone-fests. I found them quite charming, although I don’t really remember them the first time round. I still love the splat paintings on the huge round boards.

The pickled animals and fish seem a bit forlorn now, although they seemed to have a significance then. There was also an ongoing ashtray theme, which again took me back to the bittersweet days when I took up smoking in, unbelievably, 1994. (I would be a rubbish art critic, always bringing my own stuff in, but there is a madeleine element to it all for me.)

The whole victorian hunter/collector taxonomy trope turned sour for me with all the dead butterflies. A zillion of them went into various pieces here, both old and more recent. In the recent room, there are huge collages of wings like stained glass windows. A beautiful effect, but I just hope these hapless creatures died natural deaths. As if to compensate, there was a room with live ones in, huge floaty iridescent things, with a girl employed solely to pick them gently off peoples’ clothing before they left the room.

Some of Hirst’s later work belongs in Dubai airport or similar, all Swarovski stylee and bling. The huge roundel of dried flies has impact at first, but I ended up just thinking about licking it to gross myself out.

My favourite bits by far were the drug cupboards. Wall after wall of glass fronted cabinets of pill boxes of various vintages. I will now confess that I am a medication box nerd. Quite a few of these went back to 1990, and I spent ages going down memory lane seeing the old packaging of substances that I might well have bought or been prescribed back then. Oddly enough, I only visited The Pharmacy about once, despite that I was going through a West London phase during its early years.

I don’t normally manage to sit through videos in exhibitions. I don’t like the dark rooms and changing configurations of people and waiting for the point of things. The one Hirst video I did watch was one where he demonstrates the most failsafe way to commit suicide with a gun. And that’s when I realised what the problem was.

It all felt like life before the internet.

It seemed charming, nostalgic. Remember when we got all excited about this thing and that thing? Now, similar things come and go by the hour. And we can’t go back. And this is why it’s not fair to judge Hirst’s work by today’s standards, simply because everyone, with very little application, can be a conceptual artist nowadays. Whether it’s lolcats, b3ta.com, knitted zombies, or the Chthulu kigu, humans are tossing out cute concepts all day, every day without let-up, and sometimes they’re brilliant.

I may even have brushed body parts with Hirst during times out in Soho ‘back in the day’. I was also running around all night being a bit of a twat, although I wasn’t rich or famous. It might be because I’m swimming in a different pond now, the second half of my life, but as I walked out of the exhibition, I felt as if I’d been looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

Posted in: Art, Life