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Viccy Ibbett has published 20 articles

Hirst's Hidden Gems

Viccy Ibbett finds Damien Hirst an unexpected but inconsistent source of great art.
Viccy Ibbett on Tuesday 24th April 2012
Hirst's 'For the Love of God'
Photograph: Aaron Weber

If only we could separate the art from the man! Damien Hirst’s retrospective taught me that delightful and profound art can be found in the most unlikely of places. However, this message was in danger of being lost in the sheer arrogance of Hirst’s showmanship. This is not an exhibition of art. It is one man’s sensory exposition of fantasy. But what’s the difference?

The difference is that the pieces on show here are incapable of standing up for themselves. A series of frankly uninteresting spot paintings claim an aura of merit only when you see them as part of an artistic journey that starts in room one with Hirst’s first attempt. A room’s worth of canvases stuck with dead butterflies becomes meaningful only after you have contrasted them with the delicate loveliness of the living butterflies roaming in the next room. Even the shark in formorlhyde is unimpressive; it isn’t even ‘terrifying’, which the guide assures me was the artist’s intention.

The diamond skull is the most spectacular example of this showmanship, which is capable of passing off even such a tacky piece as magnificent. It is situated alone in a blacked out box in the turbine hall and the entrance is so dark that I could not even see my hands in front of my face. But, stumble through the hall and there the skull is, four spotlights trained on it. I won’t deny that it is dazzling. The trick of the light ensures that the skull appears to be the source of whatever light there is. And it glitters, it positively glitters with rainbow reflections off the 8, 601 jewels that encrust it. Like a fly to a rotting cow’s head, I was completely enthralled.  

Remarkably, the longer I stayed in the exhibition room the more I appreciated. Like how the skull multiplied into infinity through its reflections in its glass case and how the human faces that looked at it, illuminated palely by the diamonds, uncannily moved in and out of these reflections. At one point I was given a start as one reflection blinked at me. It was a human face overlaid with the image of the skull , an uncanny juxtaposition of the living and the dead, the spectator and the art, which was completely effective and completely unnerving.

But that was for only ten minutes. This impression was killed by the recollection that the skull’s power to dazzle lay in Hirst’s power to show it off to it’s best advantage. Stick the skull in a lighted room and it would seem smaller and far less impressive.

This was the story of the whole exhibition. Each piece was only as impressive as the other pieces or its history allowed it to be. No single piece in this exhibition caught my eye as being singularly ‘great’; every piece relied on the borrowed glory of the artist’s identity and of it position in relation to the other pieces in the exhibition.

That said, I would recommend this collection. Hirst is an important British artist, and this retrospective provides a comprehensive look at his career so far, ranging right from his student days to his newest works, which resonate unashamedly with the fiscal fascination of Hirst with his multi-millionaire collectors. It takes us from technicolour pots to cabinets of diamonds. If you want to be amazed – and completely swindled – visit Hirst at the Tate.