Tright here was widespread disgust a few years in the past when Damien Hirst unveiled work consisting of hundreds of butterflies trapped in acrylic. All I can say is, in the event you share that revulsion at the usage of useless animals to make artwork, you could wish to keep away from this spectacular survey of his early work.
It begins with a shark sliced in sections, every preserved in its personal tank of formaldehyde. However that’s nothing, even in the event you’ve seen this seems to be a juvenile tiger shark, killed earlier than it may breed. I say seems – the gallery simply calls it a “shark”. The double freezer within the subsequent room is the place issues actually get creepy. Peer inside and useless eyes stare again at you from a intently packed heap of severed cows’ heads. Like a frightened youngster, I needed to ask a workers member if they’re actual. They’re. A small herd has been slaughtered only for this. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Essentially the most emetic work right here can be essentially the most appallingly humorous. This 1997 piece preserves a whole butcher’s stall in formaldehyde. There are strings of sausages, cutlets, chops, hams, and extra surreal cuts. The glass and formaldehyde made it appear as if my face was mirrored in a pig’s arse. The 23-year-old meats look chemically white and obscene. Beneath is a jaunty painted signal that claims “Shut Up and Eat Your Fucking Dinner.”
Nothing marks the passage of time since Damien Hirst was a younger artist a lot as our modified attitudes to meat. Clearly the idea of animal rights existed again within the 1990s, children. However someway not in artwork. When Hirst leapt to notoriety for placing animals in vitrines there was hilarity and outrage – the Solar despatched a reporter to the Saatchi Gallery with a bag of chips to go together with his pickled fishes, the critic Robert Hughes mentioned an actual man would have caught the sharks himself – however not a lot ethical or political protest.
Now Hirst can look again on his youth, it appears, with a sure serenity. He owns an enormous assortment of his personal artwork, and has curated it in an immensely entertaining journey down reminiscence lane. However what makes him suppose we’d like Britpop nostalgia from a time when the Tories had been in energy without end and a daunting new illness sparked an pressing sense of mortality?
Wait, I get it. The useless animals on this exhibition could appear up to now it however the terror of dying that pulses right here is all too 2020. Across the partitions are instances arrayed with medicines together with Retrovir, the primary drug accredited within the US for HIV, reflecting the medical disaster that intensified artwork within the early 1990s. If Hirst was updating his medical provides he would possibly add dexamethasone and remdesivir, which President Trump obtained for his Covid.
This fascination with therapeutic proves that Hirst, who this yr launched his personal NHS rainbow, isn’t any psychopath. There are two useless males’s heads on this present however they solely seem in images. Right here’s younger Hirst, a scholar in Leeds, laughing subsequent to a severed head within the metropolis morgue. However in actuality he by no means did pickle his grandmother. Hirst doesn’t suppose human beings are meat. He thinks different animals are.
The philosophy on show right here is classical humanism with a aspect order of Cartesian dualism. Just like the French thinker Descartes, Hirst believes we’re basically completely different from different creatures. That’s as a result of we have now consciousness – above all, the consciousness of dying. There’s an enormous piece, half sculpture and half portray, that lays out a puke-making assortment of cigarette butts. Hirst, in one of many meditations written up all through the present, factors out, in case you’re thick, that smoking is about dying.
Lest you don’t give your mortality a lot thought and Covid-19 is simply one thing that’s taking place to different folks, Hirst’s traditional artwork retains screaming the fragility of all natural matter. And at last, right here’s what the cow heads are for: meals for flies. The daunting set up A Hundred Years is kind of similar to its higher identified companion A Thousand Years. A giant, black-framed, clear tank is split in two, with a small aperture between them. Within the first, myriads of flies are born and buzz about. Within the second, they’ll feast on a bloody cow’s head because it deliciously rots – however they threat being frazzled by an insect-o-cutor. Generations of flies will cross as world historical past is trapped on this enclosed allegory. The tray underneath the glowing blue insect killer was already full.
So many lives, so many deaths. And us, taking a look at a vibrating array of darkish dots, a blue gentle, a pool of purple thickening gore. A Hundred Years must be in a museum for ever. Maybe every little thing else by its inventor will probably be forgotten. However that is extra lethally sensible than something by Marcel Duchamp.
The exhibition’s solely weak spot is its inclusion of Hirst’s vacuous work. Dots and spun splashes that make me shrug. He’s not a painter, however a metaphysician. It’s honest to say Hirst seems to be right here like a prophet. Droop your moral doubts and eat his artwork.