Thursday, June 07, 2007
First intelligent comment on new Hirst Show
Is this the birth of 21st-century art?
With his shimmering skull, birth paintings and bisected shark, Damien Hirst has redeemed himself, says Jonathan Jones
Tuesday June 5, 2007
The darkness is a work of art in itself. Perhaps it is the real work of art. The public visits that are carefully orchestrated at the gallery, with timed tickets and small groups and - obviously - draconian security, are restricted to two minutes. In two minutes your eyes can't adjust to the darkness. In two minutes the iridescent object can only register as a dream of eye sockets that are blue-green pools sunk into a shimmering spectral mask. As you move closer the ghostly head bursts into all the colours of the spectrum ... and then two minutes are up and you are escorted out of the building.
You can re-enter White Cube, Mason's Yard to see the rest of Damien Hirst's exhibition, and go to White Cube, Hoxton Square to take in still more of it. But after seeing the work he calls For the Love of God, it's not the same any more, looking at animals in formaldehyde and butterflies trapped in paint and fish arrayed on shelves.
The old dispensation of Damien Hirst's art - that immaculate pharmacy - doesn't seem as urgent, as real, after seeing his new order. This isn't a disparagement of him, even if he had recently started to seem a bit saggy and sad, like a poorly preserved shark. It applies not just to Hirst's art before the skull but to what every artist in the world is doing at this moment. For the wonder at the crystalline heart of this exhibition is not only a memento mori, a death's head. It is also a birth, as scary as shattering as the one TS Eliot's Magi witnessed: a birth like a death. What is being born, exactly? It might be the art of the 21st century.
Art does not follow the calendar's dividing lines. The art of the 20th century does not begin in 1900 but 1907, the year Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, whose masks and staring eyes and jagged limbs and shallow perspective could never have been imagined by Monet or even Cézanne. Exactly a century on, Hirst has created an object that has nothing to do with the 20th century, that owes as little to Marcel Duchamp as it does to Picasso, that has nothing to do with the Holocaust or 1917 or any of the 20th century's memories ... a work of art, in fact, that could have been created in any century but that one. Art has struggled to escape the 20th century because its first half was a great aesthetic period that cast a long shadow. Hirst, though, has broken through - for the second time.
This exhibition is a kind of autobiography, a restatement of who he is and what he has done. This suggests the kind of self-consciousness Picasso exhibited in 1907, or again in 1937 when he painted Guernica: the self-analysis of an exceptionally intelligent artist looking back on his achievements at the moment he transcends them. He has even revisited the masterpiece that started it all, the act of genius that came to him in his 20s.
The frustrating thing about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - the tiger shark Hirst placed in a tank of formaldehyde at the beginning of the 1990s - is trying to explain its power to anyone who didn't happen to walk into the Saatchi Gallery and see it when it was first exhibited. It was a stupendous, marvellous sight. It fulfilled the title because the shark, when you walked towards its mouth, really seemed to be alive and swimming towards you. You want to talk about the tradition of the memento mori, the reminder of impending death, in art? This was a memento mori, because it let you feel for a moment you were about to encounter man's most awe-inspiring predator, too close for survival.
The shark decayed. It shrivelled and shrank, and by the time it went back on public view, by the time Hirst was universally famous, his most important work was a leathery curiosity that belonged in some dusty corner of a natural history museum. It was, and is, still fascinating, and with his new work Death Explained he makes a virtue of its weakness. The new tiger shark downstairs at Mason's Yard makes no pretence to be alive - how could it after being sawn in two lengthways? Perfectly bisected, it is displayed in two tanks you can walk between; that is, you can stand inside a shark's mouth and in its stomach.
Hirst's animal sculptures, collectively called Natural History, are the most misunderstood artworks of our time. Routinely described as if they were no more than their content - in this exhibition, as well as the divided shark, you can see cows, sheep, fish and a white dove - they are in fact optically complex works that play with apparently infinite richness in the way large bodies of fluid refract light, and that have fun with mirrors, holes and anatomies. The shark's two halves don't just stay still in their tanks: walk alongside them and the vast volume of liquid does things to your perception. The tail seems to move in a leisurely way. The grey skin of the fish is magnified when you look from the outside: walk between the two segments and, because the exposed organs are pinned right up against the glass, there is no magnification. "It's quite a diddy little shark," as one visitor comments. But this is the point.
In life, the shark is larger than life. In death it's smaller than life. So what is life? What is it that makes such a difference between carbon-based organisms that move and those that don't? This is what everything in Hirst's exhibition asks, obsessively.
Near the shark is a cabinet lined with fish in translucent boxes: it is mirrored and you see yourself among them. Walk around it and the same fish are laid out as skeletons - and your face is reflected among them again. Even the paintings on the walls in this big downstairs space at Mason's Yard, which on first sight look like pretty, vacant abstractions, are grisly reminders of the fragility of existence. Each is based on a biopsy result revealing the kind of news that shatters a life: you have skin cancer, you have Hodgkin's disease. . . the surfaces of these brightly coloured nightmares are encrusted with broken glass and razor blades, the texture of the worst news, the worst pain, the worst prognosis.
It gets worse, the news. At White Cube Hoxton Square is a bullock whose poor brown eye looks down at you, appealing for empathy, as it hangs there pierced by arrows. This is typical of paintings of Saint Sebastian - in fact, Hirst's bullock resembles the Saint Sebastian in the altarpiece by the Pollaiuolo brothers in the National Gallery, who suffers his fate just as passively. The work is a vindication of Hirst's use of religious imagery, so often seen as cheap and meaningless. If you look at images of Saint Sebastian as a modern viewer in a Freudian age, it's hard to avoid their homoerotic implications and they become more about sex than religion; by transposing it to the world of animals he makes it once again a story of the acceptance of death, the Christian passive soul. It's all in that cow's eye.
So is Hirst a morbid, passive connoisseur of the grave? Does he want to be dead? The accusation is plausible when you direct it at Andy Warhol, whose art is actually deathly and as if made by death, but it doesn't wash with Hirst. He is scared of death because he loves life - and that comes through in the most shocking works in this show.
Upstairs at Hoxton Square, the four paintings come as a relief from the brutality of tortured bullocks and cancer art. Here are gentle images of the birth of Hirst's son Cyrus, lovingly copied from snaps taken in the operating theatre when his wife Maia had a C-section. They are touching and sweet; it's funny to see Hirst as bespectacled dad in a painting called Happy Family. Then you go to the St James gallery and the reality bursts in your face. Hirst photographed, and with his assistants has painted, the entire operation. He shows Maia cut open, every bit of blood and flesh, the surgical instruments, the baby, like a little god born out of some hideous bloody sacrifice, raised aloft.
It's nearly time to go back upstairs and try to comprehend that skull, and here is a work that is intimately related to it. On a drawing for the skull, Hirst notes, "Like that Mexican skull with the turquoise on it." He has been spending time in Mexico, inspired by its Day of the Dead, and the skull is partly modelled on Aztec masks that cover real skulls with precious blue stone; you can see one in the British Museum, which also has a fake Crystal Skull once thought to be an ancient American artefact. Reading about the culture that produced the turquoise skulls Hirst has been looking at, I found myself seeing his paintings of his child's gory birth in my mind. I was reading about the culture of blood sacrifice that horrified the Spanish conquerors; the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people, cutting their chests open to tear out their beating hearts. They did this to keep the world alive, the gods in heaven. Life for them was violence. In Hirst's paintings of Cyrus's birth there is a primeval, an Aztec sense that life involves pain and sacrifice; that death is when pain stops.
You turn to diamond, to hard inorganic purity that glitters forever. A diamond is created deep inside the earth when carbon - the same element that becomes coal, the same element that bonds in the basic molecules of all organic life - comes under incredible pressure and heat. Hirst's diamonds have come out of the dark to eat light.
So this is it, "the distinguished thing", as Henry James called Death. This is King Death: a skull cast in platinum and covered with "the highest quality diamonds" by a West End jeweller. It's the perfect artwork to show in this part of London: the perfect artwork for an age of massive wealth and escalating art prices; a ridiculous pop object in so many ways. Is it vulgar? Oh yes, and that is what makes it great. So much art nowadays aspires to a pseudo-seriousness, shrouding its essential mediocrity in an anthropological appeal to a universal human sense of vulnerability. I'm talking about Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn - and I would have included Hirst had you asked me a year ago. But the skull redeems him utterly: his art has undergone a sea change, into something rich and strange.
You just can't argue with this work of art. You can't fault it. I've examined it with the critical equivalent of a jeweller's eyepiece. I compared it to Holbein's anamorphic skull in The Ambassadors, as well as the turquoise Aztec skull in the British Museum. It is comparable to those masterpieces, not derivative.
It's something no artist could ever do before - that is, as a modern work of art. The objects it resembles - from Tutankhamun's gold death mask to a silver monument to Alexander Nevsky in the Hermitage - were commissioned from nameless craftsmen by all-powerful rulers. No modern ruler has the authority to do such a thing, and up until now, no artist was in a position to emulate them. So Hirst truly has created an exceptional object. It is not merely an expensive work of art, but a great one. It has a primitivism that renews art for our time just as Picasso's discovery of African and Oceanic masks renewed art a century ago: it promises that art in this century might yet become as new and as ancient as the best art of all ages. I can't think of a period that wouldn't be amazed and delighted by it: Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare and the Aztecs would all be flocking to White Cube. You should go, too.
Damien Hirst Beyond Belief is at White Cube, Hoxton Square and Mason's Yard, London, until July 7. Details 020-7930 5373.
Geplaatst door anonymous op Thursday, June 07, 2007