Someone once told me a great story about Damien Hirst. Having been at a party, the man himself had been working the room, asking guests to put their hands in his pocket and guess what was in there. The mischievous artist later revealed to his audience that it was in fact his penis, threaded through a hole in the lining of his pocket, that they had been touching.
Love him or hate him, he certainly engages the tongues of the chattering classes.
As I arrived at the entrance of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall for the preview of Hirst’s retrospective, a small group of protestors, from an artists’ community that went by the name Magma, were decrying self-promotion in the art world.
The 18th century painter Sir Joshua Reynolds courted the upper classes, painting the ‘celebrities’ of the period; the Dadaists provoked society through controversial stunts and messaging; and the Abstract Expressionists became immortalised by Life magazine in 1951 as ‘the irascibles’ due to how they conducted themselves publicly.
In different ways, all are acts of self-promotion yet some of these artists and movements have been cited by the Magma group as inspiring their own work: confuses the issue, rather, in terms of their cause and what the group hoped to achieve whilst standing outside a globally renowned institution where one of the most important exhibitions of 2012 is being staged, the subject of which being one of the most talked about artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Cynicism, and, indeed, Magma, aside, the Damien Hirst retrospective is impactful, just as Hirst, himself, has been.
However, in terms of his art, Hirst has made himself a victim of his own personal PR machine as, like a badly decorated hall, original beauty and taste have been plastered over many times by layers of poor imitations and altered falsehoods, leaving the onlooker confused as to what, exactly, Hirst is: artist, businessman or spokesperson?
What the exhibition at the Tate Modern does is hit the reset button, shedding the layers and stripping the artist back to what he started out as: a Conceptual artist and enfant terrible of the YBA set.
The fourteen rooms house key pieces such as ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, ‘Lullaby, the Seasons’ and his early spin paintings.
All of the pieces, over the years, have been enthusiastically intellectualised when considered in relation to the themes of life, death, love, wealth, science etc. and their respective titles. But what struck me about the exhibition, more than anything, is Hirst’s attention to detail: a level of OCD I have simply never borne witness to.
Butterflies individually, and painstakingly, laid out on giant canvases, in perfect symmetry, designed, successfully, to look like stained glass; cabinets of medical instruments so perfectly arranged, and polished, they appear sharp on the eye; and spot paintings where the beauty was created by the simplicity in the vivid colours and immaculate finish.
Based on his recent work, however, one cannot help questioning the personal involvement Hirst has with any given piece, past or present.
A vast majority of the pieces on display in this exhibition are early works, created in the late eighties and nineties, an exciting time to be an artist in the UK as the industry became a more democratised space, free from the constraints of patronage and stuffy institutions.
‘Artists no longer needed to wait around for someone to discover them’, explains Tate’s Head of Collections, Ann Gallagher, ‘they could find a space and exhibit themselves.’
These self-produced exhibitions, including, most famously, the three-part Freeze show organised by Hirst himself, served as fantastic platforms for him and his contemporaries to stand on, making them visible to gallery owners Jay Joplin and Charles Saatchi, both of whom nurtured the artists, providing a foot up to the next level.
But it wasn’t just about the exhibitions, the YBAs used media channels to talk about their work and posture on their political views. As Minimalist artists Donald Judd and Robert Morris had written extensively about their own work and the work of their contemporaries, providing a context for the conceptual nature of the art being produced in the sixties and seventies, the YBAs were using the media to identify themselves as a new wave of celebrity and proffer quasi-cryptic soundbites about their own work.
Self-promotion was not only important for generating a buzz around the artists, the issue I believe Magma were so set against, but it was also a way of communicating a message and democratising their work, a message, which in Hirst’s case, I believe became confused and convoluted somewhere in the nineties.
What this exhibition at the Tate Modern has done, is to distil the vast body of work, both ‘original’ and mass-produced, to form a snapshot, representing, as close as is possible, what Hirst really is about.