Tuesday, 12 June 2012

But is it Entertaining?

My daughters and I viewed Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate Modern yesterday.  The one thing that we all agreed upon was that the art was provoking; for one daughter feelings of great joy and for the other great anguish, particularly over the deliberate use of live and dead creatures in a large number of the works.

In the evening, Sky Arts broadcast Tim Marlow’s interview with the artist; it was the perfect complement to our expedition.  I noticed that more often than not, Damien tended to respond to many of the questions posed to him with, ‘I don’t know....’ which we found both funny and endearing.  He came across as a quite plain-speaking chap; no deep philosophical theories of contemporary art or political protestations or social commentary.   Instead he says, ‘life and death are the biggest polar opposites there are.  I like love and I like hate…I like all those opposites.  On and off.  Happy and sad.’

He appears to be an artist of action: an idea occurs to him and despite its possible technical difficulties, he goes ahead and does it anyway.  This called to mind the ideas of Martin Heidegger and the man with the hammer.  In Damien Hirst’s case, a man with surgical saws, embalming liquids and a hanger-sized  studio.  And it also brought to mind for me the comments of the film director Lars von Trier who said that in the process of making a movie, he begins by deciding what he’d like the viewer to feel;  he then builds the scene, music, lighting, character and action around that objective  He’s deeply interested in what the viewer is seeing and feeling in every frame.  

When Hirst was asked what he hoped for in terms of the reactions of the observers of his work, he said that his only goal was that the works of art were remembered the day after they were viewed.  Not whether we liked them or not; not whether we are moved by them emotionally or stimulated by them intellectually or repulsed.  But that we just remember them. And if that's his primary goal, Hirst has succeeded in a big way - even the rooms full of pharmaceutical shelves which to our eyes could have come straight out of Boots.  Still, we’ll remember then because we saw them right after the bodiless head of a cow and live butterflies living on canvases.

There was one room which had a trio of what from the entrance looked to be stained glass windows.  When you get closer you realise that they’re made up entirely of butterflies.  Thousands of real butterflies.  They’re amazing and I’ll whisper this: they’re beautiful. 

The final piece of the exhibit is the famous diamond skull which can be seen in a glass box in small darkened room.  It’s entitled, ‘For the love of God,’ apparently because this was his mother’s response when he told her he was going to be an artist.  How cheeky and abundantly ironic.  Seeing it the flesh, it was smaller and prettier and more delicate than the photos can relate.

There’s a great deal of death in Damien Hirst’s work, but it isn’t depressing in the least.  In 2005, he said: 'There are four important things in life: religion, love, art and science.  At their best, they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness.  None of them really work that well, but they help.  Of them all, science seems to be the one right now.  Like religion, it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end…’

When people comment on contemporary art I often hear them say, ‘I could have done that.’  Well keep in mind that you didn't, couldn’t have and probably never would.  Did I like Damien’s work?  Some of it yes, much of it no.  But it was certainly memorable, from the walls of diamonds to the mosaics of butterfly wings to the reservoir of cigarette butts.

No comments:

Post a Comment