On Saturday I took myself up to London, and one of the purposes was to visit the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern.
Hirst is an artist who divides opinion - not least in my own mind. Having only seen a limited amount of his work "in the flesh" this was a chance to review his oeuvre and, perhaps, revise my ambivalent opinion of his work. It was also a chance to see some of the pieces that I've most wanted to see - the famous pieces and also "Away From The Flock" which I missed when it was part of "The British Art Show 4" in 1995.
Billed as "the first substantial survey of his work in a British institution" the exhibition is a blockbuster. It cover his earliest work - found objects such as saucepans painted in household gloss, a ping-pong ball balanced on the airjet from a hairdryer to the later works sold directly by auction by Sotheby's in 2008.
Hirst's work is obsessed with opposites - life and death, attraction and repulsion, beauty and ugliness. Indeed, he is quoted as saying:
"Life and death are the biggest polar opposites there are. I like love and I like hate... I like all these opposites. On and off. Happy and sad. In an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time."
The major pieces are all present and correct - "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (aka Shark in Formaldehyde) and Mother and Child Divided, which I have wanted to see for years amongst others. "A Thousand Years" - a two chambered' Vitrine in which flies hatch from maggots, feed on a severed cow's head and either live out their lives or die in an insectroctor - was another work which I had only previously seen on television. These pieces didn't disappoint, and neither did the spin paintings which have a certain joie de vivre in their "composition".
His spot paintings did disappoint, however, and I'm not sure why - I've liked them in the past but was underwhelmed on this occasion. Perhaps seeing them in large quantities meant I wasn't able to appreciate the individual pieces. The series of Medicine Cabinets - in which Hirst presents a series of filled cabinets each named after a track from The Sex Pistol's album "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" also left me cold. By contrast, "Lullaby, The Seasons" (four large steel display cabinets with mirrored background and lots of replica pills) is a beautiful work.
The exhibition also re-creates some of Hirst's installations, including a twin work ("In and Out of Love") featuring butterflies on brightly painted canvases in one room and a subsequent room where butterflies hatch from pupae attached white canvases. Another installation was "Pharmacy" in which Hirst returns to the use of Medicine Cabinets but on a much larger scale.
The exhibition moves on to rooms featured display cabinets with surgical equipment, taking his earlier obsessions with medicine to a new level, his beautiful butterfly pictures (creating the look of stained glass windows with butterfly wings) and one containing the fascinating "Black Sun" made from dead flies and resin. The latter rooms feature hugely commercial, blinged up versions of his earlier works - revisiting old themes but with a larger budget and an eye on larger profit margins.
Hirst's art is about controversy and commercialism. For all my scepticism about the made-for-market work, I still bought the exhibition catalogue on my way out. Therein is Hirst's power - to make attractive the repugnant and to make commercial the controversial. My ambivalence about his work may remain but now he (or at least the Tate) have some of my money too. I'll leave you to decide who was the winner in that particular equation.
The exhibition is on at Tate Modern until 9 September 2012. It won't be to everyones taste but is a must-see for anyone interested in British Art of the last 20 years. Tickets are based on fixed entry-time periods, so it is probably best to book in advance.