Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern

2012-5-12

The survey of Hirst's work currently on at the Tate Modern focuses on questions of life and death.

Hirst's most celebrated work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (aka "The Shark") is not only an example of Hirst's ongoing exploration of morbidity, but also a stand in for the entire Young British Artist (YBA) movement. As he is the key figure in a movement which has been both highly acclaimed and harshly derided, the exhibition benefits from the fact that an archaeology of Hirst's work is at least as interesting as the work itself.

The best moments in the exhibition come when it successfully induces a visceral reaction: goosebumps when looking at bisected animal carcasses, a slight panic when Black Sun seems to writhe with primordial life in your peripheral vision. It's real fuckin' neato.

However, even at its strongest, its difficult to escape the "High Art Light" charge levelled at the YBAs. After all, shouldn't we be a bit suspicious of a hedge-fund manager's idea of good art? The diamond encrusted skull and the meticulously arranged pills and bottles don't do anything to assuage these suspicions.

There is also something to be said about a movement whose primary exponents include some incredibly rich people, and about the timing of the exhibit to coincide with the spectacle of the 2012 Olympics. While Hirst's art does speak to us about life in the age of austerity, what it says is not terribly empowering. As we contemplate the death of Europe on an hourly basis, the "$12 Million Stuffed Shark" seems to indicate an impossibility of death for some of the lamest features of Britain under New Labour: showmanship over integrity, and capital run amok.

The Tate Modern's exhibition of Damien Hirst's more conceptual work is on until the 9th of September. White Cube also has an exhibition of Hirst's paintings at their Bermondsey location until the 8th of July 2012.


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