Damien Hirst: Death, diamonds and dots

I’ve always had mixed feeling about Damien Hirst. Sometimes his work is provocative, interesting or beautiful. At other times I think he, more than anyone else, is flying the (invisible flag) for the emperor’s new clothes.

The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living – Damien Hirst. Photo: Andy Brennan, CC licenced.

With the major survey of twenty years of his work opening at Tate Modern I decided to try and get to the heart of why this is so.

Partially, it has to do with his and my attitudes towards death. Hirst’s artwork comes back to the question of death and mortality constantly while I obsess over the two subjects in a less art-production fashion. Simplistically, I suspect that I enjoy his art when I feel that it has something interesting or thoughtful to offer on the subject and not when it doesn’t.

A few things:

Years ago when I was living in trendy Notting Hill (in the parlance of letting agents) I went to Pharmacy – the restaurant and bar in which Hirst was involved. If you’ve seen his installation of the same name (or, y’know, been in an actual pharmacy) you’ll have an idea of the decor for which I believe Hirst was almost entirely responsible. Lots of glass medicine cabinets, bar stools shaped like aspirin tablets and so on. I only went once because it was overpriced and horrendously smug. It turns out that this experience could probably function as a metaphor for my reaction to most of his work – vapid, without substance, attracting posers, and hideously and unreasonably overpriced.

Some years later I saw Hirst’s actual installation, Pharmacy at Tate Britain. It was an entirely different experience to the bar and I was unexpectedly moved by it. Okay so it wasn’t entirely successful. The bowls of honeycomb perched on kickstools were rather overegging the pudding, but the towering cabinets containing box after box of pills and liquids and powders were very powerful. You could barely go a shelf without recognising something from the bathroom cupboard or a brand name from a long-expired prescription. Hirst had created in Pharmacy a piece of art which could make any visitor questions his or her mortality – “Just how many times have I been sick?” “Would I have been dead a long time ago without all this stuff?” “What will I do when the cabinets fail me and there is no cure?”

Then there’s that bloody shark. Now, I like the shark. I would probably be ambivalent about it but for the glorious title: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. I like it because it’s true. Death is utterly impossible. We think we have a handle on it and then suddenly it slithers through our fingers. It’s particularly impossible when we meet it face to face through the death of a loved one or head on through an encounter with our own mortality. The shark suspended in formaldehyde embodies the absolute impossibility of death.

Similarly the vitrine A Thousand Years in which flies live out their life cycle, from maggot to buzzing minibeast, over and over. It would have been utterly tedious but for the cruel addition of one of those insectocutors which lures the creatures to their deaths over and over again and makes the human parallels palpable.

For the Love of God – Damien Hirst. Photo: Ian Bauer, CC licenced

And then there came the dots and the butterflies and the jewelled skull and the Sotheby’s auction. Each of these things annoyed me in a slightly different way but the general theme was that they were boring and unengaging, yet newspaper column inches KEPT APPEARING.

The Sotheby’s auction was probably the worst because it reminded me of all of those dreadful aspects of the Pharmacy bar – the hype and the superficiality. But also, somewhere in the sea of critical text I began to notice the thing that probably irks me the most about Hirst’s work – that in theory it makes sense and is interesting and a critique on some larger societal notion (the trinity belief systems of science and religion as examined through art, for example) but often the words and the ideas don’t match up to the execution, or the execution is so slick and polished as to leave no crevice in which your thoughts can take hold. For The Love Of God, 2007 (that jewelled skull) is a great example.

On display in the Turbine Hall for the duration of the exhibition in a well-guarded darkened room, the platinum cast of a human skull inlaid with 8,601 diamonds glitters and glistens like a macabre seventies disco ball. Your brain knows it’s probably a comment on death and value and, given a piece of paper and five minutes, you could probably write a few hundred words off the top of your head how a jewelled skull could feasibly express that. And yet, when you standing front of it, all you think is “Well, it’s certainly sparkly”.

So where does that leave us?

As with most things, probably somewhere in the middle. Hirst is clearly capable of doing interesting things and causing interesting debate. He is also capable of producing lazy work half-concealed behind a savvy media presence. To my mind his market value is overinflated to say the least but while you can attribute that in part to his own talent for media manipulation and showmanship, it’s also very much the result of a general trend of buying for value rather than for enjoyment. Though the market for invisible clothing is buoyant at the moment doesn’t mean everything in your wardrobe will hold its value when the hot air begins to cool.