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Damien Hirst - pretty vacant

There are only two good works in the Tate’s Damien Hirst retrospective.

In March 1986, I was in Australia at the Adelaide Writers’ Week. One night at dinner, I was telling the outraged and incredulous Cuban novelist-in-exile Guillermo Cabrera Infante that Baudelaire had plagiarised his famous essay on Edgar Allen Poe from two essays in the Southern Literary Messenger by John R Thompson and John M Daniel. And that Daniel in turn had plagiarised his piece from Griswold’s obituary of Poe. 

Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose luggage had been lost several days before by Qantas, was preternaturally composed and charismatic in a rumpled linen safari suit. His only piece of clothing a paradox – soiled yet chic. He was also at a remove, chauvinistically silent, refusing to descend to English. “Nous causons au sujet de plagiarisme,” explained Cabrera Infante. Robbe-Grillet was suddenly alert: “J’approve,” he said crisply, “Je suis voleur.” It was a strikingly original, counter-intuitive statement. 
There are two – but only two – remarkable works in this Damien Hirst retrospective. One is A Thousand Years (1990). The title refers to Hitler’s claim (to a British journalist in March 1934) that the Nazi Third Reich would last a thousand years. But the idea is stolen from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
It is in two glass sections. In the air is a storm of flies, a blizzard of black holes. The left-hand compartment contains a hollow, white cube with a circular hole in each visible plane. The pane dividing the sections has four holes, so that the gross, wrinkled meat-flies bred there can fly into the further section. Here, there is a partially flayed cow’s skull on the floor, poised in a brown pool of blood the colour of gravy – so viscous it looks as if it might be synthetic, like a magician’s spill of ink, something you could peel off. The angry crimson skull has stiff, white eyelashes and sodden fur still on its muzzle. Its tongue protrudes, the colour of Irn-Bru, as if the thing were thinking hard. Above this head there is a blue insect-o-cutor and an angled tray filled with two stirring wedges of dying flies. The flies are dying like flies. Looking at this piece is like looking at eczema. It is the weight of numbers. Your brain itches.
Neither the title’s characteristically glib, melodramatic allusion to the Third Reich, nor the debt to Golding, can affect the power of this piece – or its evident originality. I first saw this piece in “Sensation!”, the Saatchi show at the Royal Academy in London in 1997. I was unimpressed – because I understood only the concept, the realised idea, but resisted the actuality. Importantly there were then far fewer flies. A Thousand Years is now all actuality: the very texture, the unflinching feel and the flinch of disgust. It is gruesome and brilliant.
But the famous shark, shackled to its coffee-bar-existentialist title – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – seems ever more dilapidated, more fairground sideshow, with every dowdy showing. What clichéd menace it may once have theoretically possessed has evaporated. Not just yawning, but drowning – saved from going belly up only by its tough nylon threads – its front fins like stabilisers. I gave it a good long look and noticed that it seemed dusty. Next time, some cleaning lady should hoover it. There is another, smaller, replacement shark, in better nick (The Kingdom, 2008)– but it is a tiddler and the loss of scale is fatal. 
The other show-stopper is Pharmacy (1992) which owes debts to Warhol’s use of Brillo packaging, something to Joseph Cornell, and something to those laborious, pedantic reconstructions by Ed Kienholz. This is a larger-than-life pharmacy down to its apothecary bottles on the counter filled with different coloured liquids – blue, red, lime and emerald. There is even a green, neon Hermes symbol. All this literalism is beside the point, however. Hirst, rather in the manner of Claes Oldenburg, has simply noticed how something ordinary and familiar has beauty and charisma. With Oldenberg, it might be a baseball bat. For Hirst, it is the great frieze of pharmaceuticals in their packaging. He understands pattern very well in this piece. For example, there are five opaque, white, plastic jars of Theo-Dur – but there is also a jar in a smaller size. And the five larger jars show their blue labels at different angles.
Theme and variations: a simple thing, you might think, but the scale of this piece is crucial. As it always is. The Zovirax packets provide another theme and variations. And so on. All these patterns exist, disappear, reappear, overlap. The walls become orchestral, a great polyphony of colours, a symphony of signs – creating something calm and beautiful that everyone has experienced in a French or Italian chemist’s, if not their local Boots. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s charming poem “Filling Station”, where the oil cans are arranged to say “ESSO-SO-SO-SO/to high-strung automobiles”.
Though all the smaller pharmaceutical cabinet pieces are given “intriguing” titles, pilfered from the Sex Pistols – EMI, God, Seventeen, Pretty Vacant, Bodies, No Feelings, Submission (featuring Anusol), New York, Holidays, Anarchy – the diminished scale gives them the feel of preparatory sketches. They are negligible. You wouldn’t miss them – but Hirst has so few ideas, he tends to milk them. 
The spot paintings are a case in point. Null and repetitive, with the artist apparently unable to decide which pieces work best. One of the earliest works here is 8 Pans (1987) done when Hirst was at Goldsmiths. The undersides of the circular pans are painted with various colours of household gloss paint. They form the first spot painting, however different the spots might seem. And the later butterfly paintings – real butterflies arranged on more gloss paint – are sometimes also spot paintings, the butterflies naturally camouflaged with dark polka dots. Others are the starting point for Hirst’s spin paintings, with throws and smears of brilliance. The spin paintings also arrive via Jackson Pollock, just as the spot paintings emulate Gerhard Richter’s Pantone colour charts. Art historians see this as artists in dialogue with each other but sometimes it is just derivative.
Lullaby, the Seasons (2002) is four arrangements of ampoules and pills. In 2007, the Spring arrangement was sold for a record price of £9.6m. I prefer Cy Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni, recently shown at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, but the Hirsts are simply and beautifully decorative. Each is like a bead curtain hanging sideways in the horizontal. The pills and ampoules rest on glass shelving with mirror backing. Think of sifted, sorted tiny pebbles, or beading on a dress, or sequins. They are the height of fashion: the season of each is a matter of colour tone and it is quite subtle. Winter, for example, is a grey-blue; autumn a hint of overall russet. 
The set of four, despite the glittering setting, is rather restrained and tasteful. Which comes as a relief from the over-statement of, say, The Black Sun (2004) – a circular targe composed of flies in resin. Or the dove suspended in formaldehyde, which ends the show. It is titled The Incomplete Truth and draws a glib contrast between the religious connotations of the dove and the physical reality of the bird. If you look closely, you will see that tiny bubbles are clinging to its beak – the Steradent effect. I think he should give formaldehyde a good, long rest.
He should also stop relying on those big, balsa-wood ideas that go down so well in the megaphonic art world. A giant fibre-glass ash-tray is filled with fag ends, filthy fag packets, the odd KP salted peanuts bag, an empty ketchup sachet and so on, and given the title Crematorium (1996) – a memento mori, you see. Hirst could have been an advertising copywriter. There are also two separated friezes of fag ends in different rooms. One is rather beautiful, because the “cork” tips are intuitively well-spaced and mostly laid on their sides, their yellow colour a kind of thick darning, coming and going, appearing and disappearing. In the second arrangement, the fag ends are standing and crowded – so they look like fag ends and nothing else. Another idea over-exploited. It may be all right, on occasion, to be a thief, but it isn’t a good idea to steal from yourself – though it may be commercially lucrative. 
The exhibition catalogue includes an interview between Hirst and Tate’s Nicholas Serota. Hirst emerges as an engaging, obliging motor-mouth. But his answers return, nervously, obsessively, to the subject of painting. “The void of a painting is always a difficult thing”; “When I was painting, it used to be a big catalogue of disasters”; “Whereas in a painting, I’d get lost”; “I’d spend so much time on shit paintings”. This is a representative sampling. It isn’t by any means exhaustive. There’s more. Yet, interestingly, revealingly, apart from the spot non-paintings, there are no paintings in the Tate Modern retrospective. Not even the Bacon-derivative “Blue Paintings” that bombed at the Wallace Collection in 2009. 
In August 2006, I saw several Hirst paintings at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, alongside Infinity (2001), a glass cabinet full of pills, row on row. My notebook records: “good joke about tachisme, pointillisme – his own spot paintings”. My next note: “his terrible oil paintings”. I record three titles, including Skull in Slaughtered Cow (2005) – a flagrant Picasso derivative, repeated in the Tate retrospective in the two sheep skulls, Stimulants (and the Way They Affect the Mind and Body), 1992.
However, what I remember is Hirst’s sequence of paintings, done from Polaroids, of a birth. I managed to find one online, Untitled. It shows the moment when the child is lifted from the birth canal on to the mother’s stomach. The umbilical cord, coiling back to the vagina, is plausibly pearlescent, like an oyster shell in a Dutch still life. It is competently painted, which is surprising because the rest of the picture is an unmitigated disaster. The mother appears to have given birth to a papier-mâché baby, the colour intended to represent protective vernix on the skin – waterproofing for the womb’s amniotic fluid. The expression on the new-born face, instead of being simply crumpled, looks as if Hirst has cribbed it from Munch’s The Scream. There is no technique.
In an interview for Turps Banana (Issue 1, November 2004) Hirst speaks of his figurative painting as something accomplished by hired “technicians”. He puts in the black lines. His role is to organise – like a film director. By “technicians”, despite the demotion implied, he means artist hirelings with technique he doesn’t possess. Years ago, a very skilled artist, Mark Alexander, was told by one of his tutors at the Ruskin that art wasn’t about skill. 
John Updike, reviewing a show of Van Gogh drawings in New York at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005, commented: “his skills are uncertain but his spirit is determined”. And Updike’s final verdict? “In his paintings, the sunflowers, the workers’ worn shoes, the famous chair . . . seem indeed to have arrived from another world, as freshly and startlingly there as the annuciatory angel, full of their news.” 
I have to say that when I saw the 2010 Royal Academy exhibition, The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters, I was struck by Van Gogh’s unevenness, his uncertainty, his clumsiness and the occasional descent into the ludicrous. These pictures arrive with a patina of fame and expectation. But take a painting such as The Wheat Field behind St Paul’s Hospital, with its irresistible signature turbulence – and then consider the central figure of the man with the scythe. It is botched and inept. 
And Hirst? True, great art isn’t about skill. It isn’t about clumsiness either. You have to have skill before you can dismiss it. Picasso was a virtuoso. In Bailey’s Democracy, David Bailey photographed a raft of people in the nude, including Damien Hirst, pulling his prepuce and mugging at the camera. A telling image of Hirst’s skills – not that much, stretched not very far.
The Damien Hirst retrospective is at Tate Modern until 9 September.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue