Damien Hirst at the New Art Gallery Walsall

Posted on 12/30/2012

by Christopher Pankhurst 

From October 6th 2012 until October 27th 2013 the New Art Gallery in Walsall is hosting a solo exhibition by the artist Damien Hirst.  The works on display in this show offer a representative sample of some of the artist's major themes and artistic praxes.  Hanging over each of these works, just as it hangs over Hirst's entire corpus, is an obsessive preoccupation with death.  Indeed, the representation of death is both Hirst's vocation and his undoing.

A key exhibit is an enlarged black and white photograph from 1991, With Dead Head.  The photograph was taken ten years earlier but it was only when it was enlarged and redefined as an artwork that its creation could be dated as such.  This question of redefinition is utterly crucial to conceptual art as a whole and is not particular to Hirst.  What is particular to him is the subject matter of the photograph.  It is a portrait of the artist as a young man (16 years old), but what is unusual is that he is crouching down and grinning next to a large severed head on a table.  The head is an anatomical specimen from Leeds University's anatomy department where Hirst used to make drawings.  It is an eerie precursor to his later works featuring dead bodies and, like all of those works, a precursor to death itself.  Although the photograph lacks the clean precision of those later works it still produces a frisson of fear due to the presence of death as an object, that is, as a life form from which life has departed.

This frisson is achieved fully in one of Hirst's signature pieces, Away from the Flock (1994).  A lamb is suspended in formaldehyde inside a glass box.  The piece still shocks despite having become a sort of visual cliché.  The shock has nothing to do with the use of such “objects” as art pieces; it comes from the very presence of death itself, which is to say the absence of life.  Even more so than Nitsch's abreactive Aktions, involving the slaughter of hundreds of animals and the vivid smearing of their blood and entrails over human bodies, Hirst's frozen formaldehyde animals bring us face to face with death.  In fact, the very stillness and immobility of the floating animals suggests a ghost-like liminal state entirely absent from Nitsch's messy abattoirs.  These animals are still present to us in life but only as objects; they are now forever absent to themselves.  There is no one better than Hirst in presenting the uncomfortable fact of death as an existential dilemma.

Monument to the Living and the Dead
(2006) consists of two very large canvases, one painted white, the other black.  On both are stuck several butterflies.  The presence of dead insects disturbs us less than the presence of dead sheep, which in turn disturbs us less than the presence of dead humans, and consequently this piece invites us to view it in more strictly aesthetic terms.  Each butterfly has been carefully chosen and positioned so that the overall effect is to remind us of Hirst's spot paintings, executed from a primary palate.  The use of real butterflies is still distinctive of Hirst but this piece can be viewed at one level as merely pretty.  The “material” used to create such prettiness is nonetheless troubling, and it serves to undermine its own shallowness.  The monolithic black and white of the canvases on which the butterflies are crucified suggests the stark dichotomy between life and death but it also serves to remind us of other ambivalences in Hirst's work, notably the apparent disconnect between the simplicity and immediacy of the visual statements he makes and the profundity of the themes he incorporates.  Whether this ambivalence is entirely successful as an artistic praxis is an interesting question.

Controlled Substances Key Painting (1994) is a spot painting which assigns a particular coloured spot to each letter of the alphabet and to each numeral.  beautiful c painting (1996) is a spin painting made by throwing gloss paint on to a spinning canvas.  Of these two, both vividly colourful pieces, the spot painting seems much more in keeping with Hirst's controlled and obsessively taxonomic approach.  The spin painting allows random, chaotic forces to dictate its creation and this jars with the clinical austerity of Hirst's best works.  According to the exhibition guide, the spin painting, “highlights the equalising potential of art, where both a child and a famous artist can make similarly beautiful pictures.”  Such banality, when juxtaposed with the very real presence of death elsewhere in this exhibition, again points to the problematical dialectic at the heart of Hirst's work. 

Pharmacy Wallpaper (2004) takes us deeper into the problem.  The artwork consists of printed wallpaper pasted onto walls of the gallery.  The busy, yet precise, pattern consists of a great variety of pills each one accompanied with a biblical reference.  The pharmaceutical industry has become a new God; the terms of our engagement with mortality are now mediated through chemical interventions rather than through Divine pronouncements.  The theme is just as pronounced in Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology (2000).  A triptych of display cabinets filled with anatomical models, Trinity again presents the post-modern body as a receiver of grace from medicine rather than from God.  The anatomical models are fragmentary, sliced icons establishing a point of contact with the extension of mortality, rather than with eternal life.  Both of these pieces succeed in establishing the idea that our need for immortality causes us to create gods and they clearly demolish the tentative sense of immersion we may feel in the eternal.  But to what end?

If we are to dispense with our gods and abandon the quest for immortality, what does this leave us with?  This question leads to Hirst's undoing.  The photograph With Dead Head existed as a photograph for ten years before it became a work of art.  What was it that conferred this status of “art” to it?  It is a commonplace assumption (to the point of received wisdom) amongst contemporary artists that anything can become a work of art if it is so defined by the artist.  Hence the rise of conceptualism.  But what is it about the artist's redefinition of an object that actually confers this status?  This is the secret sacrament at the heart of the modern art world; the occult transubstantiation that turns shit into gold.  We have dispensed with God and we commit idolatry with His replacements but the one true means to enlightenment, contemporary art tells us, is through Art itself.  Art has ceased to be the means for the presencing of the numinous and has instead installed itself on the throne of ontological judgement.  The great paradox in all this is that the more servile an artistic milieu is to the numinous, the more sublime its works; the more usurping of the numinous an artistic milieu is, the shallower its works.

The great confrontation with death that Hirst rehearses again and again is destined to go on forever; at least for his forever, because when death is recognised as the great finality there is really nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do but to obsess over it.  This is why his work, and the work of conceptual artists generally, can never aspire to be anything more than pretty.  If there is an ultimate deadline  approaching beyond which there is nothing, then the presence of that eternal nothing becomes the black hole of all creative energy.  Without something more than mere mortality to inspire us we are bereft of the source of all inspiration: the presence of the numinous.

To be sure, Hirst is able to do more with the assumptions of post-modernity than almost any other artist.  His recognition of death's inevitable approach means that his work grapples with much bigger issues than that of his contemporaries.  But, hamstrung by those post-modern assumptions, and by the sense of remove and irony of modern life, he is unable to ascend beyond that position.  Caught forever between the profundity of death and the transience of life there is nothing to do but to reshuffle and reclassify the artefacts of mortality.

At the heart of this work Hirst is laughing at death, just has he did as a 16 year old next to a severed head.  Behind the laughter, as he constantly reminds us, is the fixed rictus grin of the skull beneath the skin.  Behind this, nothing.


Christopher Pankhurst is a writer from England. 

Black Gnosis © 2012