In 1991, the Young British Artist Damien Hirst shocked the art world by displaying an Australian tiger shark encased in a formaldehyde tank. This suspended vision, enticingly entitled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” engaged the viewer in a face-off with this once feared predator, now totally subjugated by a concept that propelled Hirst to the forefront contemporary art. This concept contains (ironically) the beating heart of a morbid fascination with death that pumped life into his many hair-raising installations. Veiled in a shroud of humour his works are a conceit for the fear of death, and, one could argue, in Hirst’s case, the fear of being forgotten.
His works have ranged from the iconic to the vulgar but no matter what, Hirst has never failed to make an impact. The art world, with its changeable market and its even more changeable judgements, has never mustered the ability to ignore Hirst’s bids for attention. Often this attention has been duly warranted, his works throughout the 1990s contained an element of perverse genius that resonated with a generation of artists and art lovers who were seeking new and bold directions to explore within the realms of contemporary culture. Hirst’s Pill cabinets, in particular, encapsulate a falsely utopian ideal instilled in modern medicine, that there is a treatment for everything; that, no matter the ailment, there is ‘always a pill for that’. As the artist once said in an interview: “I think the thing that is forgotten is that we are going to die…they [pills] can only heal you for a minute. When they are giving you a drug to keep you alive there is a point where you have got to say it’s not worth it.” His pharmaceutical works evoke a sort of free-floating anxiety about the inevitability of decay and death – eventualities that do not await great art. Great art stands a test of time that the artist cannot, it’s impact and legacy living on long after the artist has died.
Defying death, ironically, is a concept Hirst’s art clearly seeks to destroy, and yet it seems that in these same efforts he is simultaneously composing his own hagiography. This boldness of confidence has often been the greatest point of contention when it comes to Hirst’s art. He has been accused of laughing at the artworld and at his audience, ostentatiously dangling his creations before the world, brazenly declaring his lack of involvement in their physical execution and pushing out so many replicas of the same series of works that he mockingly challenges the assessment of their value.
His 2007 work, For the Love of God, a human skull plated with platinum and encrusted with 8,600 diamonds, bankrolled entirely by the artist himself (for a rumoured £14,000,000), is an embodiment of these exact charges. The artist was exploring the inherent worth that is ascribed to diamonds, saying: “are they just a bit of glass, with accumulated metaphorical significance? Or are they genuine objects of supreme beauty connected with life?” Was the artist engaging in a moment of self-reflective caustic satire, challenging the concept of worth whilst exploring the artifice of aesthetic significance? Or was this yet another ploy to shock the artworld with a display of kitsch excess? Whatever his purpose, the diamond skull appeared for a while to have been the last straw for the art market. His success on both primary and secondary markets took a downturn and his works fell woefully out of fashion.
Whether Hirst is a delusional narcissist when it comes to believing his own hype or maddingly self-aware of his notoriety as an idol of Contemporary art it is a line he has skilfully trodden for years and never so gallingly well as with his recent show, his comeback ten years in the making: “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”
From the miniature to the monolithic the show has been the dominant feature of the 2017 Venice Biennale and in typical Hirst fashion has provoked a range of reactions, from awed reverence to angrily unimpressed. What is for certain though is that the artist has once again bullied his way into the imaginations of his audience, causing his signature rift through the art world to wild cries of: “but is it really art!?” Successfully finding the means to answer this question correctly, is, of course an exercise in futility. Far more important to observe is the fact that since his first explosion onto the art scene in 1991, Hirst has caused people to stop in their tracks and think about what art truly is. This may well be his lasting legacy, and what secures him a place amongst the masters and mistresses who shift and reform the canon of art.
Article by Rebecca Jennings