Death becomes him

Written on April 12, 2012 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Damien Hirst’s preoccupation with mortality led to his best work, now on show at Tate Modern

In every generation, one or two artists attain a celebrity so intense that it blinds us to serious assessment of their work. During the 1990s, Damien Hirst became the most famous artist in British history, yet also a mysterious one, whose iconic pieces – the shark, the rotting cow’s head – appeared to come from nowhere, impinging on the collective consciousness in a way that had nothing to do with museum endorsements or gallery career-building. Now the enfant terrible is tamed at last with a retrospective at Tate Modern: a beautifully installed, clear-sighted show, intellectually streamlined to concentrate on key themes. The effect is to desensationalise Hirst, placing him soberly in art historical rather than art market context, and inviting us to see his achievements straight for the first time.

A hallmark of a great art work is that, however familiar we are with it and with the idea of it, it shakes us anew when we encounter it again in the flesh. Two decades after they were made, the initial pieces in Hirst’s formaldehyde zoo continue to mesmerise for precisely that immediacy and fleshiness, for their bravura, pathos, ambition.

The gaping fish in mock formation, dead as on a fishmonger’s slab, pointlessly follow one another for eternity, in the first paired vitrine installation “Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding”. The shark – a replacement of the 1991 catch, with a more open, greedier jaw, though the wrinkled skin is already looking the worse for wear – still forces you to consider “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. The bisected cow and calf in “Mother and Child Divided” are as gruesome, the idiotically buoyant sheep in “Away From the Flock” as affectingly lonely, as they ever were. This is art so original and direct that it looks invincible, beyond challenge.

Continue reading in The Financial Times




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