One of the hallmarks of modern art has always been a certain shock appeal, a challenge to the limits of conventional taste. Ironically, the furor which first greeted works like Manet’s "Olympia," or Stravinky’s "Rite of Spring," had the effect of elevating, rather than ruining, the reputation of the artists involved. History repeated itself when then-Mayor Rudolph Guliani attempted to shut down a 1999 show of cutting-edge British art at the Brooklyn Museum, an effort which served only to boost attendance at the exhibit and spotlight the careers of the artists involved. Damien Hirst was one of those artists, and his purposely provoking creations — like installations featuring live flies and dead cows — have continued to both outrage and intrigue the art world. Now, at 40, perhaps the most famous artist of his generation, his latest works are currently featured, along with those of two of his contemporaries, in an ambitious new show at the Tate Gallery in London. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin took in the show, and here is his reaction.
I came to the exhibit fresh from a long stroll through nearby galleries devoted to the paintings of the British master J.M.W. Turner. Turner’s panoramic visions of shipwrecks, storms, and avalanches are classic examples of the Romantic Sublime, a 19th Century movement that saw encounters with untamed nature as a direct means to spiritual enlightenment.
Surprisingly, I almost immediately encountered a work in the Hirst exhibit that brought me right back to Turner. The piece, a stainless steel medicine cabinet nearly thirty feet long, contains hundreds of narrow glass shelves holding thousands of assorted pills. Its title, "Standing Alone on the Precipice and Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror," makes clear reference to the art of Turner and his compatriots. But the “Arctic wastelands” here mentioned has two meanings, both quite different from the actual realm of cold and snow that sent Romantic hearts aflutter. On the one hand, there is the chill wilderness of our modern medical realm itself, its gleaming, high tech tools at such odds with the hidden, fleshy train wrecks we battle to prevent. And then there is the arctic wilderness of our own soul, as we wait for the results of the biopsy and confront the limits of our own existence.
I also found connection with older art in an even more unlikely Hirst piece, featuring a real dead calf in a display case of enameled steel and glass, the black-and-white body suspended in what is presumably embalming fluid. The stillborn calf’s yearning, upright posture was oddly reminiscent of the ascending saints and angels of Baroque art — a redeeming gesture that saves the piece from simple morbidity and sensationalism.
Nearby, what on first glance appears as a giant, dark circle with an oddly rough surface is revealed on closer inspection to be nothing but layer upon layer of tiny flies, their thousands of dark bodies glued to a disk fully 12 feet across. The surprise here is how lush and complex the surface thus created becomes, shot through with subtle color and absorbing light like some astronomical black hole. The piece, entitled, "Black Sun," has its polar opposite nearby, a happy disk made up of butterfly wings in luminous patterns reminiscent of Islamic art.
The absolute most over-the-top Hirst piece in the show is an extravaganza entitled, "The Pursuit of Oblivion." Basically a colossal aquarium, the work includes two entire beef carcasses hanging from meat hooks, dangling strings of sausage, traditional symbols of mortality like an hourglass and skull, an open black umbrella, schools of tropical fish, and an overactive eel. The piece again features art historical smarts — it’s actually based on a painting by the legendary British artist Francis Bacon — as well as deft image-making skills. The tropical fish against that black umbrella look gorgeous.
Two other young British artists, Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas, join Damien Hirst in the Tate show. In their installations, the assorted objects they have assembled stubbornly refuse to appear as anything else other than what they are, and the results are leaden and dispiriting. Hirst famously succeeds in turning the unlikeliest of materials into works that are in the first rank of contemporary art.