Hirst is somewhat of an enigma – is his art truly art? Or a simple glamourised shock tactic? However you feel after viewing his retrospect at the Tate Modern, you’re attitude and opinion would sway to the former, with Hirst’s work showing depth, compassion and meaning whilst examining the dualities of the life cycle.
With his work being some what of a cultural phenomena, Hirst could be seen as a sinister modern day Warhol, the perception being the idea of taking and embracing an everyday item and utilising it to provide a metaphor for the current day. Whilst Warhol was all about pop coloured Campbell cans, Hirst takes the more sinister item of a cigarette, using it as an example of life itself.
Undoubtably the largest and most talking about exhibition that the Tate has to offer of late, the retrospect is sprawled across numerous rooms, with the prevalent theme being an examination of the life cycle which is most significantly highlighted in the installation named ‘A Thousand Years’. Grotesque to some, the piece involves a glass vitrine containing a cows head on one side, and a box of maggots and flies on the other. The maggots are born into flies, then feed on the head, then die by natural causes or the insect-o-meter also set in the case. The bottom of the case is lined with fly carcasses who have met an awful fate.
The idea of the circle of life is also highlighted with, as aforementioned, cigarettes. A pristine glass case holds numerous cigarette butts named ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’, along with a massive ashtray filled with again more butts. Hirst presents life as the action of partaking in smoking, you start a cigarette’s life by sparking up, dragging the tab resembles it’s life, and when you stub it out to end the cig, you’re also ending it’s life. A bizarre comparison, yet one that makes insane sense on deeper observation.
Hirst’s signature dissected animals also feature, with viewers able to walk between a cow that has been sliced perfectly in half, you can walk the length of the cow’s digestive track, whilst ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ is Hirst’s renowned shark installation. The possibly most beautiful part of the exhibition are pieces that resemble stained glass windows, when really they are created out of hundreds of butterfly wings, intricately placed to create a piece of art.
‘Pharmacy’ takes up a whole room, with medicine walls lining the cabinet each with old pill boxes and remedies that his grandmother used to need. Each case is laid out with clean precision, yet on a subversive level, explores the idea of prolonging life. A further room is laid out like a surgery, with the ultra sterile metallic instruments contained neatly casing.
Although the exhibition mainly focuses on our existence and the sadly inevitable personal realisation that with birth comes death, the collection of work also showcases an element of control and perseverance with Hirst’s signature dotted paintings. Although it is wonderful to experience these pieces up close, they felt slightly out of place within an exhibition that had a slightly darker undertone.
The exhibition runs until September 20th and is truly worth a visit. On surface level Hirst appeared to simply go out to shock, but on closer investigation, Hirst is serving us a subliminal examination of life, whilst providing us with 21st Century pop art.
by David Mahoney