White Cube, London
3 June - 7 July, 2007
8,601 VVS to flawless diamonds...
1,106.18 carats in total weight...
In the UK, 2nd in value to the Crown Jewels...
I am a committed fan of Hirst's work and have an abiding appreciation for the lineage of his practice, especially the earliest works, but I, like others no doubt, have observed a serious decline in the quality of his recent productions. It is almost too obvious to say that Hirst's art has become an international brand, more high class commodity than avant-garde creation, but maybe it should be stated clearly once more. The once refreshingly wry and unrefined sentiments about life’s temporality and death’s perpetual villainy in the form of over-the-top sculptures involving the animal carcasses and life cycles and installations of medical magic have come to possess maybe the greatest monetary value of any art works around but little meaning in the face of their ongoing reproduction. We are beginning to see that we must now take Hirst at his word when he seems to feign that it’s all about the cash.
Despite the glitzy haze surrounding this recent work and the fact that the rest of the exhibition resembles a formulaic museum retrospective and not a very interesting slice of new work, the sheer potency of Hirst’s skull cannot be dismissed. I think the skull will be remembered as his crowning achievement (pun intended!) for the simple fact that it has accomplished his highest aims for art and at the same time embodied consistently the spirit of all his overall body of work.
One of the more attractive features of Hirst’s legacy has been the irrepressible attitude of the common man at work within his practice. Due in no small part to his rather rough, working-class upbringing in Leeds, Hirst brings a simple, often crass perspective to bear on the makings and meanings of contemporary art. None too subtle, he bashes the often vain sophistication of the art world with a deep interest in art that surprises its audience and confronts real life.
With a persistent concentration on the imagery of death, Hirst has pushed aesthetic debates about what can be considered ‘art’ and at the same time leveled biting cultural critiques at the broader society and its specific attempts to escape the realities of death. In this way, he has made name for himself that rivals many international trademarks. Basically, I think that Hirst’s work constitutes a modern appropriation of an interesting and explicitly Christian format from art history—the memento mori. This Latin phrase means ‘Remember that you will die’ and represents a body of art that involves specific symbols of life’s fleeting condition (e.g. flowers, hourglasses, and skulls!) in a tradition of handsomely crafted genre paintings. With this framework, I see three important or overriding categories of death imagery: natural death (i.e. the animals and life cycles), the clinical aesthetic (e.g. the Pharmacy installation), and the death of painting (i.e. the butterfly mosaics, spot and spin paintings).
But of course, the importance of this work does not rest merely on the qualities of the aesthetic object. The fact of the matter, however, is that the atmosphere of pomp and circumstance surrounding the work cannot be explained through the customary language of experiencing art that informs the common fare of art criticism today. As one who has seen the piece, I can say that the experience of viewing the work rehearses the strictures of a medieval pilgrimage to see a holy relic and resembles very little the casual strolls through contemporary museums we usually take. Indeed, the act of assembling with other worshippers outside the gallery and then journeying through the gallery to the dark room where one finally gains that private audience with the skull must awaken latent spiritual sensations in anyone who has ever visited the ruins of an ancient temple or a historic cathedral. For many, the experience of Hirst’s skull may be the most religious event of their lives or the closest to the traditional structure of an officially religious sort of worship.
As Jerry Saltz has pointed out so well, Hirst’s attention to death imagery is devoted to a bold affirmation of life. At the risk of neglecting the complexities of nuance and ambivalence so highly regard by the art world, Hirst intends his work to send audiences home thinking about their own lives and the certain death that awaits us all. So, I happily join the ranks of the worshippers in enjoying the sly irony of the skull, and after all the fun of seeing it, I marvel even more at the gesture represented by the work. Anytime I can get my education about a piece of art from the confident and engaged musings of a security guard, I’m happy. In providing the impetus for so much essential outsider interaction with a piece of contemporary art (i.e. security details around the work, unprecedented media coverage and basically making a gallery show a broadly relevant and entertaining cultural event), Hirst has popped the bubble of art world exclusivity for a moment; hopefully just long enough for an inquisitive elect out of all the uninitiated masses to find something to latch onto inside the discourse and maybe an opportunity consider some important questions in a fresh way. That sort of prospect I can’t resist.
View a brief overview of the show and an interview with the artist here.
Also, check out another interesting interview from a few years ago at a major retrospective in Naples, Italy. See below.