For most artists, a retrospective at Tate Modern should be the crowning point of their career; critical acceptance writ as large as is humanly possible. Such is Damien Hirst’s fabled brass neck that he no doubt also sees the exhibition that opens next week as an apotheosis, proof positive of his pre-eminence among contemporary artists.
But I wonder if there’s a little bit of him that is worried too. The Tate show is the first survey of his work – he’s been a noise for 20 years now – and there is a danger that seen en masse he will appear as less the big beast than the mouse that roared.
Among the 70 works on display, the most interest will be focused on the pieces that first made his name: the pickled cows and shark of the early Nineties (it is not the original shark though; that animal rotted despite the formaldehyde and had to be replaced at a reported cost of £100,000). These works still exert a visceral tug and offer an appropriately modern approach to the age-old artistic subject of treating death and mortality. But what about the rest?
Hirst is unapologetic about not doing the work himself, saying “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it”
The diamond-encrusted skull plays in the same territory with an added (knowing) gloss of consumerism factored in, too. However, it has been undermined by the fact that at the much-trumpeted price of £50 million, it failed to find an individual buyer and was acquired by a consortium that included Hirst’s own dealer in order to keep the brand buoyant.
The spin paintings – bright paint poured randomly on rotating canvases – are pure Tony Hart Vision On, and the dot pictures are mass produced. There are to date some 1,400 of the latter, all but five painted by assistants. Hirst is unapologetic about not doing the work himself – saying “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it” – and currently has two hired hands painting a two-million-spot canvas for him. That’s eye-watering, but it isn’t art.
His sculptures, meanwhile, depend for effect not on their message but their scale. The collecting ‘box’, copied from the Spastics Society girl in calipers circa 1960, has been blown up to 22 feet tall; the anatomical model based on a children’s biology set (which led to Hirst paying an out-of-court settlement to the games maker Humbrol) stands at 20 feet.
This, though, is a large part of the allure of the exhibition: Hirst is the Barnum of Brit Art, and his work – or rather the work that bears his name – is less about aesthetics than entertainment. The artist is a peerless provocateur who, for all his wealth and two-finger waving, never neglects to put on a good show. I for one will be rolling up.
Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, 4 April-9 September 2012