Damien Hirst at Tate Modern

In Art Gallery, Exhibitions, Temporary Exhibitions on April 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm

For once in my life, I may be in danger of being a bit cool. Only a bit, because this is obviously painfully mainstream, but still. I went to the opening weekend of the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst Retrospective.

(Photography is not allowed in the exhibition, so all pictures here are courtesy of the Tate Modern. However, you can still hover over these pictures for snarky witticisms, courtesy of me.)

I’m not a frequent visitor to art galleries, but when I do visit, I tend to visit Tate Modern. They have a great approach to art, I think, and one that doesn’t alienate those of us who are completely uncultured and unable to tell a Warhol from our own elbow. I am a complete philistine in the art world, but in the Tate Modern, I feel like that’s ok – they are just happy I’m trying. There is no need to feel completely alienated by intimidating chronological displays, or embarrassed by a lack of knowledge which is clearly presumed elsewhere – the Tate Modern just presents modern art simply, cleanly, and with a variety of levels, ranging from “Oooh, pretty colours” to “This work is typical of his later life depressions and a statement on post-war politics in Lubecktensteinberg”, which makes a nice change. There’s nothing I hate more than being made to feel like an idiot by a museum.

I must confess that I would probably not have gone to the Hirst exhibition if I had had to pay for it (the Tate itself is free, but the Hirst Retrospective is a paid temporary exhibition). Not because I don’t like Damien Hirst, but because I’m going to get as much out of his art as I will out of the other five floors of free stuff. I find the pieces on display are rotated enough to keep the free part of the museum very interesting, and I really do recommend a buzz through if you ever find yourself at a loose end on the South Bank (see also The Royal Festival Hall exhibition space…and the South Bank Food Market behind it. Nom.). Still, I am privileged enough to be a National Museum employee and a Museums Association member, both of which will get you into the Tate Modern’s exhibitions for free, and Hirst is kind of a big deal (I imagine he has many leather-bound books). So, lucky you! I went, and now I’m reviewing it.

Logistically, I found the set up of the rooms difficult. You’re meant to progress through some of his earlier spot work (which I was completely unfamiliar with), past A Thousand Years (1990) and into a room filled with live butterflies. We had to skip that, because the queue for the two rooms the butterflies were in (understandably closely-monitored numbers) stretched all the way back to the entrance. It would have been our fourth insane queue of the day, all of which were Hirst related (tickets, skull, exhibition entrance being 1-3) and I’m all for a good queue, but that’s insane (a conclusion my American companion probably arrived at sooner). I hope that queuing won’t continue to be a problem, though. It was the most annoying aspect of the visit, but I did go on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday, two days after the exhibition opened. Even so, I spent waaay too much time on my feet (although the Tate offer those handy folding stools to wander around with, it was so busy there were none to be found).

You progress into two, possibly three, rooms dedicated to Hirst’s pharmacy pieces. I felt this part overwhelmed the rest of the exhibition, to be honest. It seemed out of proportion and indeed, out of step with the rest of the work on display. I can’t put my finger on why, despite devoting most of our visit to examining it (taking a very Science Museum-y approach to hunting down the controlled drugs on display, and pondering whether or not the Tate and Damien Hirst have been dealing drugs inadvertently). Beyond that there are some other pieces in paint, but by FAR my favourites were the huge works of art using butterfly wings in collage. The triptych of butterfly wing windows is genuinely beautiful, and it takes your breath away. It was a nice end to the exhibition to leave past such spectacular pieces, leaving behind the far harsher works of the previous rooms. As usual, you exit through the gift shop. Even by the Tate Modern’s standards, it’s an expensive one, but you might be able to pick up a postcard of your favourite piece.

There is one thing beyond the exhibition that I must mention. I have to give major kudos to the Tate for their approach to Hirst’s infamous For the Love of God (2007), a platinum cast of a skull covered in diamonds. Perhaps his most iconic piece (with some competition from the animals in formaldehyde, obviously), the skull is reportedly worth £50million, but the Tate are giving it to you for free. A small box room has been constructed at the end of the Turbine Hall, with the skull sat in the centre of an almost pitch-black space on a simple pedestal. Something so physically small in the Turbine Hall causes me conflict. I love things like Miroslaw Balka’s disorientating How it Is or Carsten Holler’s Test Site slides that fill the vast space with nuttiness, because the main selling point of the Turbine hall is the fact that it is just so frickin’ huge. Not many galleries have a cavernous hanger to display giant works of art in; its size is its USP. That said, perhaps it says something about Hirst and the extravagance of the diamond skull. So small, yet so big. Or maybe it’s a post modern statement and I don’t get it. Or maybe, just maybe, the Turbine hall was going spare for a few months. Whatever the reason – I admire that For the Love of God is (ironically) the cheapest piece of Hirst’s work on display. The signage is horrendous (we thought we were queuing for the exhibition itself) and the queue is pretty long, at around 20 minutes if full to the end of the queue aisle. That said, it is still highly commendable of the Tate to offer something big in front of the pay barrier. Props, Tate. Props.

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern runs until 9 September 2012, and an adult ticket costs £14. If you are a member of the Art Fund/ National Art Pass/ jobseeker/ Student/ senior, there are a variety of concessions, and Museums Association/ Tate members go free. There are also serious discounts if you wish to buy a combined ticket for the Tate’s Boetti exhibition, which runs until 27 May 2012.

Tate Modern is open Sunday – Thursday 10.00 – 18.00, and until 22.00 on Fridays and Saturdays.  The Hirst exhibition also opens until 22.00 on Sundays.

  1. Love it! Very funny, although I feel I should get some credit for the controlled drug spotting skillz.

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