I’m not an art critic and nobody gives a toss about my opinion of art, but I went to see the Damien Hirst exhibition and I thought I might as well write something about it.
I grew up with Damien Hirst. Not literally, although he was apparently born in Bristol, not a million miles from where I was born, but in the sense that I’ve been more aware of him as a living artist during my lifetime than almost anyone else. Particularly, throughout the late eighties and early nineties he was a sort of bad boy of British art. I hesitate to use the phrase “self-styled” because he was about as self-styled as the Beastie Boys. Like any artist nowadays his image owes as much to the press as anything else.
Before I go on I’ll admit that I’ve always liked his work. In many ways he’s the ultimate conceptual artist. Most of his work has an unflinching clarity of thought and he seems obsessed in going for the big topics. Pretty much everything he’s ever made is about life, death or money. And very little of it is subtle.
But after visiting the Tate exhibition there are two things that I thought I wanted to write about:
- His work pretty much sums up the period.
- His work is deliberately too perfect.
His Work Pretty Much Sums Up the Period
I remember the late eighties and early nineties as being a period of absolute excess. I don’t just mean in the obvious ways, like with the Yuppies and the money, but in that it was also a period of incredible creativity (no, not the New Romantics). It started out with lots of energy and ended up mired in its own success. It was a big decade (or so).
My favourite piece in the whole exhibition, the cow’s head with flies, is a bit like a mirror on that time. It starts out with so much promise and ends up with the death of that promise. What else can you say about that? Well, maybe a bit more. Life and death itself is not a particularly original theme, but the sheer excess of life and death is worth contemplating.
Imagining everything being born and everything dying in this way is such a ridiculous, over-the-top representation of the life-cycle that only that period could have produced it. And many of his pieces are like that. They explore themes that have been central to art since time began but present them eighties/nineties-style. It’s not just life and death, it’s electric/neon/polka-dot life and death.
On one hand it’s excess but on the other it’s completeness, symmetry. The execution is as complete as the concept. And that brings me on to the second thing.
His Work is Deliberately Too Perfect
The symmetry of his work is stamped all over everything. Every piece in the exhibition is like some sort of bejewelled sledgehammer, such a perfect encapsulation of the thought behind it that it is too perfect. Because there is a problem with perfection in art. Perfection is like solving a puzzle, and once a puzzle is solved there is nothing left to talk about. In many ways perfection is the nemesis of art.
Seeing such perfect pieces of work reminded me of something else I was doing this week. I was showing my daughter some posters by Josef Muller-Brockmann and getting her to think about design. We were talking about how graphic design is supposed to get across a clear message. It’s about simplicity. Muller-Brockmann was extraordinarily good at that kind of simplicity and one of the key tools he used to achieve that was the grid.
The grid in graphic design is an amazing thing. It brings clarity of presentation, it helps to make everything logical. But the most important thing about the grid is that you’re not supposed to stick to it. One of my favourite posters by Muller-Brockmann is the motorbike racing towards the boy. It’s a very simple image but the tension in it – tension derived from messing with the grid – is extraordinary. In just one picture Muller-Brockmann makes the boy both the focus of the message and the most vulnerable thing on the poster.
Hirst uses the grid a lot too. His pill pieces and the pharmacy room, not to mention the spot paintings, are all grid-based. He even takes living animals and processes them in a way to bring a kind of mathematical coldness to them. And that just re-enforces the message of all his work. Everyone is born and everyone dies. In doing this he makes no attempt to break the grid. Everything is as it is, clinical.
Does that give me something to think about? Yes, it does. But largely not his actual work. His work deliberately answers his own questions. He’s almost saying, “Here’s life. Now move on”. There’s a massive inevitability to it all. It even extends to the comic. In one room we see cupboards full of implements designed to save lives and make us better. In another room is a big ashtray, the ultimate symbol of our desire to kill ourselves. Hirst takes the futility of life and makes it seem even more futile, bordering on stupid.
And, of course, he pokes fun at money. As you go through the exhibition you see some of the ideas recycled, but recreated more expensively. One of his first works, a hairdryer with a ping pong ball hovering over it, is remade with a beach ball and a massive multicolour box. The diamond-encrusted skull is perhaps the ultimate symbol of money as art but some of the other pieces are more of a witty statement.
In one room he re-creates the butterfly pictures, but adds in some jewels and puts them on a gold background. He even rotates the picture to make it a diamond shape. It makes a feature of a complete lack of new ideas, re-packaged with added bling. Maybe he’s taking a swipe at the Renaissance or perhaps he’s just rephrasing the eternal question of whether artists need to be poor and suffering to be any good. It’s certainly hard to separate the business of his art from the art itself. And deliberately so.
So, there are things to think about but, like I said, what it really makes me think about is something outside of his work. It makes me think about what happens when we break the grid. Muller-Brockmann breaks it for us, he clarifies everything, but Hirst never breaks the grid. By presenting such completeness of idea and reality he wants us to think about whether life is really how he presents it. Are we like the flies and the butterflies or can we break the grid of life and death?
I can really see why Damien Hirst divides opinion. You can see him as a money-grabbing narcissist churning out big, shouty stuff for rich, soulless collectors. You can treat him as the ultimate symbol of eighties/nineties’ art – all show and no substance. But this is not how I see Hirst in the same way as this is not how I see the period in which he was at his height.
There is certainly an inevitability about him. That period had to produce an artist like Hirst. But I don’t think he’s a pointless, commercial showman at all. If you at least give him credit for producing work that makes us think about other things, about what life could be like rather than what it seems to be then he’s already achieved something. But I’d go further than that. I like to think of him as an artist who did exactly what artists are supposed to do – explore their world in order to make us think about our own.