One reason to visit the Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern is to meet the drunken butterflies. They are in a two-room installation entitled In and Out of Love. In its first room you see a few dead butterflies randomly stuck onto a group of big canvases that have been gloss-painted yellow, purple, pink, and so on, like a jumble of xylophone keys. Then you pass through PVC curtains into a bright and humid gallery where dozens of live specimens, of tropical origin, woozily waft through the air. Their dark silhouettes, passing you by, flash iridescent blues, vermilions, and lime-greens.
Around the walls here are further canvases, blank but for pupae that have been stuck to them and that have left stains where they have hatched. On a central table, the butterflies have been supplied with bowls of orange and pineapple chunks steeped in sugar, and the mixture’s fermentation accounts for their languor. Some settle on the floor just where your foot would tread; others on your clothes and hair. “Shall I remove them?” a Tate employee discreetly inquires, stepping forward to pinch them free. With your fellow visitors you share a certain silenced wonder, a certain social awkwardness.
The first room is easily forgotten, but the feel of this second is bemusing. There is the stimulus of encountering these specimens of extravagant beauty. To call their beauty “natural” feels not quite right when the display is so much an affair of importation, of metropolitan fantasy. Yet in their bumbling, drifty way, these butterflies follow natural processes, growing, reproducing, and dying as all animals do, including ourselves. Like us they have their own purposes: they have lives. Is it odd for lives to be specimens? Is it wrong to encounter beauty this way? After all, few of us would single out for condemnation—among all the ways in which humans exploit nonhumans—the insectarium in the zoo.
Ah, but here there are no descriptive labels, no “Morpho amathonte, native of Colombia” and so on. Instead we are left with a caption, “In and Out of Love,” requisitioning the butterflies for some metaphor about our emotions: how a curtain’s twitch, presumably, can revert us from the glamorous and sensuous to the dry and apathetic. Fine words in the press handout about “reputable” suppliers and “a comfortable environment” can’t quite dispel my sense that these creatures shouldn’t be thus co-opted as conduits for a person’s self-expression. Yet why should I prefer to set their lives to the service of science, rather than that of art?
The two-room piece at the Tate recreates an installation that Hirst originally devised in 1991. Its immediate predecessor, entitled A Thousand Years, has likewise been reactivated. Here the insects are behind glass and anything but exotic: flies in their hundreds, trapped in a garage-sized vitrine with an interior box shelter in which their maggots hatch. On the floor lies their food, the head of a freshly killed cow. From the ceiling dangles their fate, the chill UV striplights of an insect-o-cutor, into which they are drawn and die. I stand outside watching the process, which is full of strange fascination: the sudden swarmings of the flies, the way their dead bodies accumulate, the winding puddle of blood that has welled from the cow’s neck over the gallery’s oak floor. I sense the closedness of the cycle—and for a moment I am inside there, with the flies, caught up in a kind of grisly living poem. Then a detail returns me to spectatorhood: the way the blood trail concludes with a tiny island drip, like the dot of an exclamation mark. Yes, it is strong and stirring, this experiment in transgression, but where do those qualities shade into sheer preciosity?
Damien Hirst seems to share my uncertainties, talking in a catalog interview about the first time he put together A Thousand Years, back in 1990. He tells a good story about frantically escaping from the vitrine before the flies could follow him, then getting taken aback by what he’d done:
I’d never even considered the implications of killing things for art, really, it was just all on paper, all worked out in drawings. And then as soon as I’d got out I bolted it shut, it was the first time I’d ever made anything that had a life of its own, or had an uncontrollable life, or something that I had no control over. I had a sort of Frankenstein moment of “What the fuck have I done?” And the first fly got killed, and I was just like, “Oh, fuck.”
Good question: What has Hirst done? This retrospective, devised by the Tate in conjunction with the forty-six-year-old artist, offers an opportunity to take stock of a long-rumbling brouhaha. Since those insect installations established his name, over twenty years ago, as gangleader of the so-called “Young British Artists,” Hirst has rarely been out of the news. Via many pranks and party nights, the image that journalists have dealt in has morphed from brilliant brat to plutocrat. The latter status was cemented in September 2008, when Hirst held an outrageously successful auction of his work at the very moment of the Lehman Brothers default.
But to step inside Tate Modern is to let economics make way for palpable, walk-roundable phenomena. Instead of sums with multiple zeros, we encounter physical objects with demonstrable holes. The question about the middle-aged Damien Hirst becomes once again the question that visitors to his now legendary undergraduate exhibition “Freeze” had to ask themselves: the basic, default question, in fact, about art. Someone is urging me that these items are interesting to look at. But do I feel that they are interesting to look at?
Presenting those flies and butterflies, Hirst flexes his characteristic strengths, which are those of an art director. He has the capacity to dream up punchy, innovative visual propositions, certain to catch attention in the gallery much as Oliviero Toscani’s Benetton billboards used to catch attention in the street. This focusing power did much to mark Hirst out in the 1990s London art scene as a new sensibility, responsive to a quick-grabbing, instantaneous culture of spectacle. With it have gone executive gifts. Hirst knows how to get the right people together to realize his concepts and how to lead them from the front. Michael Craig-Martin, Hirst’s tutor when he was at London’s Goldsmiths College during the late 1980s, describes him as “a perfectionist, giving absolute consideration to every detail of his work.” Hirst may set little store on doing things with his own hands, but he certainly thinks with his own eyes. It is all a question, he has argued, of what happens when his concept is physically realized in the gallery. Once there, “If it looks good, it is good.”1
Literally the most dazzling proof of that contention is For the Love of God, the diamond-studded platinum skull he produced five years ago on an outlay of £14,000,000. Lit up in a darkened, heavily secured separate chamber, away from the main show, it is a disarmingly delightful spectacle, rainbow-twinkling, blithely grinning: a vulgarity so transcendent it gives vulgarity a good name. Hirst’s popularity has always been reliant on his wit, and celebrating the object that will always prompt our mortal fears and forever mock them, he has surely delivered his best one-liner, his own form of masterpiece.
The galleries upstairs survey various lines in visual invention Hirst came up with prior to that recent coup de théâtre—most of them originated around the turn of the 1990s, the time when he first arrived. The procedure of sticking butterflies to canvases gets extended, generating outsize hieratic wall hangings. Not only dead flies but dead fish, sheep, and cattle get encased in glass boxes, not to mention a dove. Another form of snuffing out is embodied in a line of cigarette-butt-based exhibits. Glass cases also feature in numerous Hirst pieces that employ pharmaceutical products and surgical equipment. Alongside them on the walls hang white canvases dotted with evenly spaced spots in many colors, and a few that have been splashed while spinning with mechanical jets of gloss paint.
An imposing professionalism dominates. The mind’s eye, or the mind’s hand, may come away rebuffed by the long shiny expanses of glass, gloss, and steel. Resistant also, perhaps: you might complain that just as living creatures belong in zoos, not galleries, executive attitudes belong in business and government, not in artists’ studios. But I think you would be clinging too hard to your sense of decorum. Never mind whether or not these experiences feel like “art.” Just stick to the question: Do they feel interesting?
I am leaning on the criterion that Donald Judd used when he sketched out the new aesthetic that would get known as “minimalism” back in 1965. “A work needs only to be interesting,” he wrote, asking viewers to focus on the boxes he’d constructed, designating them “specific objects.” “The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting”—not the illusionism, the imagining of bodies and symbols, that dogs the painting tradition and is “one of the most salient and objectionable relics of European art.” 2
Hirst comes across as quite an adept second-generation follower of Judd in the show’s opening room, which contains work done when he was in his early twenties, fresh in London from a working-class childhood in the north. A kitchen cupboard, a row of cooking pans, and a concatenation of cardboard boxes get daubed with bright gloss colors and become new sorts of things to look at. A board leaned against the wall—his initial, crudely handmade spot painting—provides another. But from this point, Hirst followed Judd into a fascination with hands-off fabrication. His tank with pickled shark from 1991, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, started out from “an idea that you can get anything over the phone…. I actually wondered if there was no limit to it”3—a point demonstrated by ordering the specimen for his original London exhibit from a shark-catcher in Australia. (The replacement carcass currently on show presents the all-too-physical palpability of decay to the eyes of someone observing: I can’t but notice all the taxidermist’s pins straining to hold him together.)
Three decades separate Judd’s “specific objects” and Hirst’s own fabrications. Many “role models” stand between, perhaps most obviously Jeff Koons. It was from Koons’s mid-1980s exhibits in New York that Hirst adopted the motif of the vitrine, the self-important glass box, that features so heavily at the Tate. The sensibilities of both men are much indebted to minimalism, and yet both have crucially turned away from its precepts: they have yearned to bring back content to art, restoring that “objectionable” quotient of symbolism. For Koons that has involved dealing in cutesiness and porn with reference to “the mass of people”4 and to what they really want: to themes you might dignify as “society” and “desire.”
1 Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Beyond Belief: Damien Hirst, exhibition catalog (London: Other Criteria/White Cube, 2008), p. 32. ↩
2 Donald Judd, “Specific Objects” (1965), in Art in Theory, 1900–2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell, 2003), p. 813. ↩
3 Hirst interviewed in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. 45. ↩
4 The phrase Koons uses in a 1986 roundtable discussion, collected in Harrison and Wood, Art in Theory, p. 1083. ↩
Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in Beyond Belief: Damien Hirst, exhibition catalog (London: Other Criteria/White Cube, 2008), p. 32. ↩
Donald Judd, “Specific Objects” (1965), in Art in Theory, 1900–2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell, 2003), p. 813. ↩
Hirst interviewed in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. 45. ↩
The phrase Koons uses in a 1986 roundtable discussion, collected in Harrison and Wood, Art in Theory, p. 1083. ↩