Say what you like about Britain’s richest artist, Damien Hirst knows how to pick his moments. From his student exhibition Freeze in 1988 (which hooked in Charles Saatchi, presaging the Big Money art boom of the Nineties) to his 2008 sale of his own work at Sothebys (which netted an astonishing £111m on the very day investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, signalling the global financial crisis), Hirst has shown a positively scary prescience in judging the mood of the time, and exploiting it to his advantage.
Now, after what has seemed a fallow period for the artist, in which prices for his work have dipped and he’s had to lay off large numbers of staff, Hirst is on the offensive once again. He’s launching his comeback with the first of a whole year’s worth of exhibitions at London’s biggest commercial gallery, Gagosian King’s Cross, operated by the world’s richest and most powerful art dealer, Larry Gagosian, on the very day Britain’s third pandemic lockdown lifts.
As if that wasn’t chutzpah enough, advance publicity shots show Hirst in surgeon’s scrubs projecting himself – you’d be forgiven for assuming – in the role of one of the heroes of the pandemic, while the featured works include a vitrine full of PPE equipment. These aren’t cheap cash-ins – the image of Hirst in scrubs is a painting – but relatively old works, from 2007 and 2008, and they confirm our sense of Hirst as an artist who is always several jumps ahead of the rest of us.
But if Hirst is surely one of the great showman-artists, whether he’s one of the great artist-artists, even of his own time, is another matter altogether. Like his American counterpart Jeff Koons, Hirst has used his ability to manipulate media and market to create a massive space for himself in both the public imagination and the physical spaces of the world’s galleries. And he often looks like he’s scratching around for stuff to fill it.
As I enter Gagosian King’s Cross, my first impression is that the contents of some posh, old-school jewellers have been transported to this white-painted former industrial space. Mahogany-edged casefuls of diamonds, pearls, sapphires and emeralds, stand beside filled black rubbish bags, and a couple of wheelie bins. Just as you feel you’re heading into a slightly familiar riff on art, bling and refuse, you notice the titles – Deluded Rich Wanker and Entitled C*** – and the fact that these sparklers aren’t, judging by their packaging, from Asprey’s or Garrard’s, but obscure jewellers in provincial outposts such as Wolverhampton and Nuneaton. All are paste, one assumes, likely bought on eBay for pennies. Yet for Hirst to imply that these exhibits are not only “rubbish”, but actually rubbish, feels like a heavy-handed and disingenuous way to get a rise out of the art market that’s made him fabulously wealthy.
From here on, the show is less a raft of new work, more a mini-retrospective dotted with examples of his Fact Paintings, which he began in 2000: photographic images rendered in oil paint that have never been shown in Britain before, though some are a decade or more old.
Hot Love (2003), a severed cow’s head dumped in the middle of the gallery in a pool of plastic blood, harks back to the visceral horror of Hirst’s breakthrough piece A Thousand Years – created in 1990 and still his most critically acclaimed work. Glass cases full of everyday drugs and medical textbooks showcase, the gallery tells us, Hirst’s “obsession with science and medicine”. But if you’re remotely familiar with Hirst’s art, you’ll already have seen large numbers of such works, and may be wondering what – beyond the endlessly reiterated assertion that he is obsessed with death and that medicine provides a way of holding its great finality back – this “obsession” amounts to?
The most striking of the Fact Paintings – simply photo-realist paintings by any other name – shows a female diver approaching a rather po-faced dolphin through an implausibly brilliant azure sea. “Emma Swims with the Dolphin” has that classic Hirst quality of challenging blankness. “Make what you can of me,” it seems to say. “Tell me I’m meaningless if you dare!” Actually the further you go with these images, the more genuinely meaningless they seem. Large paintings of brilliantly coloured butterflies on brilliantly coloured flowers tell us little beyond the fact that Hirst likes butterflies – which I think we knew from all those “Kaleidoscope paintings” created from actual butterflies. Images of his wife and children and his old tutor Michael Craig-Martin holding the artist’s notorious diamond-encrusted skull have a kind of Facebook inconsequentiality, which having them rendered in oil paint by assistants does nothing to dispel.
French Nuclear Test, a 12ft-high image of a mushroom cloud is certainly dramatic, but now we feel we can see the strings and wires too much to be fully impressed: if these images aren’t involving Hirst in any real effort or risk, and that’s the all-pervading impression, why should the viewer bother to make an emotional investment in them?
The most endearing piece here, Station (2014), is a shambolic mock-up of a tea stall at the kind of snooker tournament that Hirst loves frequenting. The most revealing, however, is a large photo-painting of Sid Vicious on stage with the Sex Pistols, the only one of these images in which the surface is fractured enough to give it the feel of a real painting. Much more significantly, Hirst has often compared the Seventies punk upheaval – “which shook everything up” – to his own YBA revolution in British art, and bemoaned the fact he was too young to be a punk. There’s a side to Hirst that would like to have been Sid Vicious.
Yet Hirst’s impact has been on the staging of art, rather than on the content. He’s had a world-changing impact on the way artists package themselves and manipulate the market to their own ends. But only rarely has his work achieved anything like the rawness, edge and passion of the best of punk. Hirst created his “Anarchy in the UK” very early on with A Thousand Years, but the world is still waiting for his “God Save the Queen”.
The timing of this exhibition may be designed to herald the return of one of art’s great life-forces. Yet its diffuse, low-energy contents left me wondering if even Hirst himself is particularly interested in his art these days.