At the Hirst Retrogressive
we are animaled in. in ten seconds all is nothing.
the interior décor of Erewhon.
we feel like children
with intellectual measles,
the shark’s an inflatable bath-tub toy
not scary, no, a cartoon
pickled in its frame,
a grey antipasto.
the sun has diarrhoea but the medicine’s a glassed-off
he could not choose
between Beuys and Warhol
so the wanton boy’s
‘A Thousand Years’
is a bluebottle Treblinka
more Aryan than millenarian
and butterflies are mass-produced
to colour the nothingness blue.
at the puddle of gunk by the cow’s head, a fly laps the fake marrow
then lifts his dark matter into the air
to try his luck with the insect-o-cuter
ever-ready as a bourgeois smile.
the cow’s head smiles too
smaller than when I last saw
it, sucked to the skull.
the charade is so thorough, so honeycombed
with hype and money,
that throats will swallow it
but we’d wish the flies to smash
of their deathcamp,
shape-change into critics
‘we are exhausted by this
onus, this opus… aren’t you?
your day out is our life’
(Author’s note: Intending to write a review of the Hirst retrospective, it ended up coming out as the above splurged poem. After a visit to the new performance space at Tate Modern, The Tanks, myself and IT-contributor John Gibbens popped into the Hirst show as an afterthought. Within ten seconds of being there, I desperately wanted to get out….
In the past I’d always assumed that the objections to Hirst were simply due to tall poppy syndrome. He must have been doing something right to provoke such controversy. Major new artists in any field are greeted with envious opprobrium. Hirst had entered the bearpit of success. That said, I had no interest in his work, nor had I seen it, except in newspaper photos. Once, during the foot and mouth crisis, I read an article on how scientists thought the disease could be passed from cow to calf in the womb. On the next page of the newspaper was a photo of Hirst’s ‘Mother and Son Divided’, a cow and a calf chopped in half. It seemed as if Hirst’s finger was on the pulse. Seemed…
Some years later I finally saw a few Hirsts at a show in the Gagosian which also featured lots of triptychs by Francis Bacon. Bacon, also a controversial artist, was undoubtedly a man of genius and an extraordinarily gifted painter. After an hour looking at the Bacons, especially the astonishing ‘Triptych May-June 1973’ which depicts the death of George Dyer on a toilet seat, I went into the backroom to see the Hirsts. At first sight, high on Bacon, I was impressed by ‘A Thousand Years’, a tank with a cow’s head and lots of living and dying flies. The sheep in tanks also seemed stylish. However, only the things in tanks seemed original. The medicine cabinets and butterfly paintings and other assorted trinkets just seemed like shop merchandise. I went away defending Hirst and suggesting to sceptical friends that they should at least see the works before dismissing them. They laughed and accused him of being the emperor’s new clothes.
In recent years, exposure to the ideas of ecopsychology and eco-anarchism have helped me to see the world a little differently, more holistically, more concernedly, less artifically, less aesthetically. Walking into the Hirst gallery, seeing the works again, and lots more besides, I was shocked at how empty the space seemed. There was nothing there! It was as artless as it was artifical. We may as well have been in a large room with spotty wallpaper, or in a pharmacy, or in a natural history museum. It was almost mystical – here were the very halls of falsity. The illusion was endless. Interior décor, William Morris without the idealism, bad arts and crafts… It looked like Ikea in the sales with hardly anything left. This was why I wanted to leave.
But it got worse. The shark – which I‘d never seen – looked silly, ‘sad and soggy’ in the words of Hirst’s number one critic, Julian Spalding. They were never intended as pickles. They lose their menace. And there was another one in another room, just in case some of the bourgeoisie had to go off to lunch without exploring all the rooms. The shark is one of the two or three Hirst pieces on which his reputation depends. Saatchi claimed the shark was a masterpiece at first sight. Last week, it wasn’t, and the other one in the other room wasn’t either. Amateur natural history, incompetent taxidermy, yes; art, no. The programme claims the piece, flatulently entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, should ‘provoke in the viewer a profound, primal fear’. Neither shark managed this. They looked like muppets in tubs.
A retrospective, it’s not the emperor’s new clothes but his old clothes on show. The uniformity of Empire. What’s amazing is the apparent laziness. Nothing has been created. Things have been mass-produced by assistants. (Hirst’s only defence is that he generates employment.) The tat is sold in industrial amounts to aspirational types who purchase a Hirst for their offices or homes. These things will never go up in value. Like Facebook, the original share price was way too high. In the midst of this mountain of junk are the few would-be works of art. Even the big centrepieces are, of course, mass-producible. All one has to do is order one’s assistants to procure another tank, dead animal, paraphernalia, and assemble another one, instanter. (As with the shark.) Nothing would be easier than faking a Hirst. But the private owners and galleries who’ve spent millions on them would presumably object if Hirst and co. assembled one for an exhibition elsewhere, even as they themselves have to replace the rotted offal on a regular basis, refilling the disinfected vitrines. Surely, though, it would be less hassle to assemble a new one in, say, New York than ship the ‘original’ from London. Or: a single masterpiece could show in multiple capital cities simultaneously. Why not? It’s yet another novelty! Gallerists can butcher, curators can cure. Like Al Qaeda, Hirst is an idea. Unlike Al Qaeda, it’s not a good one.
Hirst’s other, later trick with the big centrepieces is to add some valuables into the mix, a sweetener for the buyer. Gold and diamonds. The work will still be sold at more than the gold or diamonds are worth, but their inclusion is a subliminal deal with the client – if and when the artist is finally exposed as a charlatan and his artworks plummet in value, the gold and diamonds ensure that they will never become entirely worthless, and the gold and diamonds themselves will have gone up in value to cover the rate of inflation. It’s the art equivalent of a tracker mortgage. The artist himself says of this more ‘opulent’ phase in his development: ‘All these gold paintings, gold and diamonds… it’s definitely all about feeling like King Midas.’ When he speaks, he doesn’t inspire.
It was once said that modern artists had a choice: they must either follow the trail blazed by Andy Warhol, or that by Joseph Beuys. Hirst, though, took the vitrines and the big ideas from Beuys, the populism and cynicism from Warhol, to make his botched compound. The problem with his big ideas is that they lack the cosmic and organic intelligence of Beuys. But he also lacks the bohemian savvy of Warhol. While Warhol launched the Velvet Underground, all Hirst could do was launch his own restaurant, one in which the food was even worse than the décor, the laughing stock of Notting Hill, now defunct. The spot, spin and butterfly paintings are from Warhol’s least inspired phases. The mass production is also from Warhol. The medicine cabinets are pure Beuys, but Hirst’s mass-marketing and overpricing makes the pharmaceutical industry look caring.
The butterfly room was even more disgusting than the cow and flies. Heated, filled with white canvases and bowls of fruit, pupae are hatched, grow into butterflies, flap about the room a little, or hug walls dejectedly, before dying. It’s supposed to be another ‘life cycle’, like that of the fly. However, after talking with a member of staff, we discovered that the pupae are ordered in on a regular basis. The butterflies do not actually breed in those conditions. Why would they? Divorced from nature and surrounded on all sides by smiling bourgeoisie, the situation is too phoney for these beautiful creatures to be able to act natural. Needless to say, no one actually owns this one. It looks like something from a Bond villain’s undersea chamber.
It was horrible in there. All Damien wanted to tell me was that I’m going to die, but I know that. All I wanted was to enjoy some art, but there was none. The retrospective was chosen to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olypmics as showcasing Britain to the visiting world. That it does admirably. It’s a capitalist charade, nightmarishly hollow, mindblowingly phoney, bone-chillingly acquisitive. We live in the era of the naked lunch. The political, financial, and media worlds have been exposed as taking the piss out of humanity. Sport too is a scam, riddled with drug-taking, bribery, and fixing. Why should the art world be immune? It isn’t. A Hirst is the crime, clue, and swag in one. His charlatanary is being sytematically sold by, to and for the super-rich… while the rest of us are told it’s great art. We have no say. Criticism endangers the stock. How long before a Hirst-basher’s body is washed up in the Thames? There should be a public inquiry into the art world.
When myself and Gibbens escaped from the abbatoir, we went upstairs to see some real art. But so profound was the Hirst turn-off, and such is the Tate Modern’s tendency to intersperse its masterpieces with vapid contraptions, it seemed like everything in the building was phoney, and the Tate itself a fake. Seemed….)
Art: Mike Lesser