‘Life and death are the biggest polar opposites there are. I like love and I like hate… I like all those opposites. On and off. Happy and sad. In an artwork I always try to say something and deny it at the same time.’
…and Damien Hirst
I’ve never really got Damien Hirst. And I’ve wondered for ages, who actually does? And if they do, why?
One of my first jobs when I began at Northstar was to commission two writers to talk about why they either loved or hated Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull ‘For the Love of God’. Finding someone to criticise it was harder than finding someone to praise it. But I couldn’t really understand why everyone who knew something about art found Hirst so praiseworthy.
So I went to see the Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern to try and work it out. The curator did an amazing job, setting the scene at the start with a room showing and explaining the key themes and motifs of Hirst’s work.
It set everything else in context – Hirst was fascinated with collage, seeing it as a means of combining painting and sculpture, and so began arranging everyday objects, like a collage onto walls. In the first room there’s a row of hanging cooking pans, brightly painted, an exploration of colour and of form. So far so good – that led him to see the collage-ness of pharmaceutical cupboards, and so he began creating medicine cabinets filled with collections of drugs, the packaging arranged for aesthetic value. In one of the rooms is a series of cabinets, each one dedicated to a certain area of the body or a particular ailment – the nose, the legs, the stomach – and then named sequentially after the tracks of a Sex Pistols album.
Why medicine cabinets? Because Hirst is also interested in life cycles – beginnings and endings and beginnings all over again. So this crops up as a room with large canvasses, plants and living butterflies in it. One canvas has the pupae of the butterflies ‘painted’ onto it, they hatch, lay eggs themselves and the cycle continues, witnessed by the viewer of the art.
His interest in cycles leads to circles – spot paintings which don’t look particularly special, but which are made up of hundreds of spots, each a different colour, each carefully placed, giving a sense of repetition that’s not actually there. And then there’s the spin paintings, but I still didn’t quite get those!
There’s a sense in the names of the works that he’s trying to capture abstract concepts and give them concreteness. Left and right are shown by a grid of fish in formaldehyde, either all facing left or all facing right. The famous shark suspended in a large tank, jaws open ready to bite, is named ‘The impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’ and is meant to give you the sense of fear of impending death, while at the same time knowing that the shark can do you no harm. It’s a weird contradiction.
All of these elements interweave with one another, to form contrasts and opposites. I began to find myself not just understanding what he was trying to achieve, but having my thoughts provoked and actually enjoying looking at all the weirdness.
The butterflies were my favourites. One room is full of large canvases, painted in bold colours, with butterflies stuck on, almost like they’re flying through skies of dense red or green or blue. And then later on, he explores the contrasts between science and faith, and makes collages out of butterflies, stuck on board like an entemologist might do in scientific enquiry, but stand back and they look like huge stained glass windows you might find in a church.
‘There are four important things in life: religion, love, art and science, said Hirst in 2005. ‘At their best they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness. None of them really work that well, but they help. Of them all, science seems to be the one right now. Like religion, it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end…’
At the very end, before you leave the exhibition entirely, even after the gift shop, in a large upright case, is a white dove, wings outstretched, the glimmer of hope.