For the Love of Opulence: Review of Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

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Originally published in Novel Magazine in April 2012

This month saw the opening of a new exhibition by Damien Hirst at Tate Modern. Given that Hirst’s infamous crystal skull, For the Love of God was made of platinum and 15 million quid’s worth of diamonds and that in one single auction Hirst made a staggering £111 million, it seemed only fitting that we take a look for this issue’s theme of Decadence. Unlike Baltic, exhibitions at Tate Modern are not all free – this one costs £14 – an eye-watering amount for a lowly sub-editor like myself. Incidentally, this is also a full 40% more than the other two exhibitions that are currently on at Tate Modern, which somewhat set the tone for the whole experience.

The first pieces that greet me are a collection of Hirst’s ‘Spot Paintings’ which are mesmeric white canvasses populated with brightly coloured dots each exactly the same size, uniformly spaced by the same size as the dots themselves. Apparently, it is actually Hirst’s assistants who paint these pieces. The mildly hypnotic effect is shattered by the visceral, A Thousand Years which consists of a glass cabinet containing a severed, rotting cow’s head. In the other half of the cabinet maggots hatch, become flies which feed on the cow’s head before either being zapped by an ‘insect-o-cutor’ or mating and continuing the cycle.

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Equally surreal is the scene in the next room, where paying punters are herded like cattle through the middle of a bisected cow and it’s calf. Mortality is obviously a theme that Hirst addresses throughout, in his own crass, overstated way. This is art for the zeitgeist, no hiding behind subtle imagery or carefully considered motifs. Hirst’s work is a slap in the face, a Hollywood Blockbuster not an art-house cinema.

This sense is embodied by one room in particular, with giant spinning wheels of saturated colours at either end, in the middle a huge beach-ball is suspended over a vent of hot air. It’s an assault on the senses, a flamboyant statement saying nothing much more than ‘look at me!’ Cabinets of over-sized pharmaceutical drugs, their packaging and surgical tools line several walls throughout the exhibition. They are too perfect, like the airbrushed images in glossy magazines. And just like those images it all feels a little hollow. Hirst’s work up to this point in the exhibition certainly reflects our shiny, disposable consumerist culture. As Hirst himself remarked about the ‘Spin’ paintings:

“They’re bright and they’re zany – but there’s fuck all there at the end of the day”. Is this a clever comment though, or the ultimate embodiment of mass culture occupying the summit of high art?

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Then the decadence really starts to come to the fore with Hirst’s pieces that use real butterflies’ wings. Literally thousands of beautifully intricate and brightly coloured butterflies’ wings are arranged with a glossy finish to give the effect of stained glass, several meters tall. It’s certainly an incredibly indulgent effect, one that many butterflies paid the ultimate price to create. Following on from For the Love of God (the crystal skull) the opulence is taken to new dizzying heights with cabinets of gold filled with over 30,000 diamonds.

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It’s interesting that Hirst’s work took this hyper-decadent turn in 2007, the same year the recession started. Whilst the rest of us contemplate austerity, Hirst’s work has been basking in the lavish hedonism of a billionaire lifestyle. Again, rather than coming across as a somewhat blatant, ham-fisted critique of this grotesque juxtaposition, Hirst’s work feels like it revels in it. Indeed, Hirst’s most recent works seem like a quasi-religious worship of opulence and excess; perhaps of little surprise when the pieces themselves fetch millions at auction.

All in all, I think Hirst treats his art like America treats military campaigns: start by throwing a load of money at it, then employ shock-and-awe tactics. Unfortunately for Hirst, money doesn’t buy you everything and this is perfectly summed up by the fact that there’s two free exhibitions currently on at Baltic that wipe the floor this extravagant circus.

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