In Review

Damien Hirst: Natural History – an ‘empty and artificial’ show

Show brings together some 25 formaldehyde works created by Hirst over past 30 years

In 1995, Damien Hirst created one of the “seminal” sculptures of our times, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the work consisted of a dead shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde, “a malevolent presence trapped in an eerily artificial sea”. To look at it was “to confront the finality of death face-to-face from behind the safety of glass”; I, for one, left “awestruck”.

Almost 30 years on, Hirst, now “Britain’s richest artist”, is still flogging the same idea, for sky-high prices and with ever-diminishing returns. This show brings together some 25 formaldehyde works the artist has created over the past three decades, featuring the cadavers of a “strange zoo” of animals, from sheep to zebras, all of which have been “contorted, mutated and sliced” in the service of his increasingly tiresome art. It’s a depressing spectacle that will leave you feeling “sad for the animals and forlorn about Hirst”.

Looking at these works is a genuinely uncomfortable experience, said Harriet Lloyd-Smith in Wallpaper. Yet beyond the “shock factor” and the silly puns – one piece here, a “rotating, multipart mobile of individually pickled fish”, is entitled School Daze – Hirst’s formaldehyde sculptures remain as “poetic” as they are “grotesque”. Cain and Abel (1994), for instance, sees two black and white calves suspended in the “blue-tinged fluid”; their “youthful buoyancy” immortalised.

More “startling” still is The Beheading of John the Baptist (2006), in which a cow’s decapitated head rests on a butcher’s block, the rest of its remains “strewn” across a “clinical, white-tiled floor”. It is not the “execution scene” itself that horrifies, but a clock on the wall that records the time of death: 11:53.

The Beheading of John the Baptist, 2006

The Beheading of John the Baptist, 2006

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

One could very easily stage a great exhibition of Hirst’s early works, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. This, alas, is nothing of the sort. What once seemed vital now feels “empty and artificial. Somewhere along the line he stopped feeling it.” The more art history his works quote, “the sillier they seem”. Chopping up a cow as a nod to Caravaggio’s painting of the beheading of John the Baptist is “just a bloody waste”. The Pursuit of Oblivion (2004) is a real-life recreation of Francis Bacon’s 1946 work Painting, with an umbrella positioned above an empty overcoat on a chair “among sides of beef and butchery tools”.

Yet while Bacon’s work remains a horrifying masterpiece, this is just “banal”. Even a 2008 recreation of Hirst’s celebrated shark is no better: whatever profundity the original conveyed “rapidly dissipates” as you take in the artist’s progress “from raw young punk to pretentious money-lover”. This is a “cold, industrial” show, packed with “art for the penthouses of oligarchs”.

Gagosian Britannia Street, London WC1 (020-7841 9960, gagosian.com)

Recommended

Will Liz Truss keep her promises?
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss
Talking point

Will Liz Truss keep her promises?

Best properties: scenic hideaways
Isle of Arran, North Ayrshire
The wish list

Best properties: scenic hideaways

Identical: young stars excel in show full of ‘theatrical wonder’
Emme Patrick and Eden Patrick in Identical 
In Review

Identical: young stars excel in show full of ‘theatrical wonder’

Is the Bank of England fit for purpose? 
Andrew Bailey: ‘an unusually apocalyptic economic outlook’
Talking point

Is the Bank of England fit for purpose? 

Popular articles

Why The Satanic Verses is still controversial
Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses
Getting to grips with . . .

Why The Satanic Verses is still controversial

Is World War Three on the cards?
Ukrainian soldiers patrol on the frontline in Zolote, Ukraine
In Depth

Is World War Three on the cards?

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 15 August 2022
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 15 August 2022

The Week Footer Banner