Damien Hirst, I Am, 1995. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd
Artillery Row

The decaying master of shock

Damien Hirst’s jokes fall flat, but he still asks for his art to be taken seriously

The entrance to the Gagosian gallery is rather unsettling. A pair of calves suspended in formaldehyde solution; two flayed cows heads gaze at each other; a shoal of exotic fish — once vividly coloured — are faded to tawny grey. They have, in artistic terms, acquired the patina of an Old Master. 

Damien Hirst: Natural History (Gagosian, London) displays the past master of shock’s iconic animal sculptures and forces us to consider the question: is Hirst a serious artist? 

When I was an art student at Goldsmiths College a couple of years after Hirst had graduated, tales of his unprecedented success while still a student loomed large. Hirst would send taxis to collect tutors so they could give him tutorials as he prepared works in galleries. For the art students who studied in the early 1990s, it was an impossible act to follow. 

Like others, I made the pilgrimage to see Hirst’s exhibitions, including those at the Saatchi Gallery. The sight of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) — a giant tiger shark in a tank — is one of the most unforgettable experiences of the last 50 years of British art. 

The space at Gagosian on Britannia Street, King’s Cross is in many ways reminiscent of the original Saatchi Gallery, St John’s Wood. A converted commercial building, with concrete floor, high white walls and visible overhead girders, Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery has the ambience of the big stage where Hirst’s vitrines first shook the British art scene.

The atmosphere of this exhibition is part carnival side-show, part medical museum, part 1990s art display. A faint medicinal scent tints the air. A burly security guard stands next to what was once a pickled sausage in a jar, while young interns sashay between desks carrying iPads.  

But, by and large, Hirst’s jokes fall flat

Natural History contains 26 sculptures in preserving solutions, dating from 1991 to 2021. There are classics such as I AM (1995), a variant of the famous white lamb in a green-tinted vitrine Away From the Flock (1994). The latter work was vandalised by a protestor, who poured ink into the tank when it was displayed at the Serpentine Gallery. There is also Death Denied (2008), a tiger shark which replaces the absent giant one seen in the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition Sensation.

The first impression is of the variety of Hirst’s animal pieces. There are single and bisected animals, fish in shoals and pastiches (or parodies, depending on your outlook) of religious art and classic modernism.

One such piece is In the Name of the Father (2005). It consists of three crucified sheep, with the central sheep is held upright — its forelegs spread in a cruciform position, its head drooping downward pathetically. It is affecting and not in an ironic manner.

Installation view. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

But, in this exhibition, the piece has been uniquely supplemented with two extra works: a praying sheep — its legs broken to achieve the right attitude — and a preserved dove, placed above. This is done in imitation of a traditional painting of the Crucifixion, with praying attendants and a symbol of God’s love appearing above the central Christ figure. Hirst is adept at taking well-known iconography and making it his own. 

But, by and large, Hirst’s jokes fall flat. A sequence of three flying ducks on the wall is a pastiche of china ducks that adorned the walls of mid-century working-class homes. It is feeble, as is a noose made of sausages. Either we should take his art seriously, or not. Actual wit in art is a rare commodity. If you can’t land the joke, don’t try.

Art is an attempt to stem entropy

More mordant humour does leave an impression. A shopfront of a butcher’s window has a rump facing us. In a gruesome display of cheekiness, Hirst is “showing us his arse” and includes a mirror so we can see ourselves as sourpusses or clued-up gallery-goers. The prices on the tags are marked in imperial pounds, which will have older visitors nostalgic.

The butcher’s display demonstrates that preserved animals lose their coloration quickly. All the cuts of meat are a revolting pinkish-grey, the sort of colour decorators call “Roman clay”. 

The evident decay of the animal carcasses is not a weakness of Hirst’s approach. Hirst is open to the animals in his sculptures being replaced; he is a practitioner of conceptual art, where the material of art is less important than the idea. The subject (as Hirst has readily admitted) is not the preservation of matter but the failure to preserve matter. Art is an attempt to stem entropy, to lodge one’s name with posterity. For all his jokes, Hirst is asking to be taken seriously. 

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