For more than 20 years, pretty much everything Damien Hirst has made, done or said has received media attention. But attention is different from respect, and if you ask the man in the street he’ll tell you that Hirst became a billionaire by cynically exploiting our collective greed and stupidity. For reasons that I don’t understand, he insists on presenting himself as a fraud who is somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. And that’s a pity, because in Tate Modern’s full-scale retrospective he comes across as a serious - if wildly uneven - artist.
We emerge from this strange, flawed, but hugely ambitious show with a sense of Hirst as complex and troubled personality. As an artist his work is indeed difficult to take - not because it is dumb, but because no one in his right mind wants to think about the painful subjects it deals with.
Brought up a Catholic (though a non-believer), Hirst’s imagination is haunted by that Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. This is not always obvious when you encounter one work or group of works at a time, but it is made crystal clear in the work selected for this survey, which has been ruthlessly edited and shaped to emphasise the eschatological narrative that runs through his career.
Hirst starts from a premise: we are so inured to even the most graphic images of death that we no longer experience it as real. By preserving the carcasses of animals in formaldehyde and by then exhibiting them in glass vitrines in an art gallery, he found a remarkably effective way to bring us face to face with death’s emptiness, its finality, its silence. Not all of the animal and fish pieces work, but when they do they are mesmerising.
Take a few minutes to look closely at the goggle-eyed fish arranged in neat rows facing the same direction in 'Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding’. To me it looks as though death caught each one by surprise. They look startled to find themselves in a state of eternal non-existence, having reached the final destination that still awaits you and me.