Leaning over the wash-basin, where I normally do my thinking and, therefore, little of it. I contemplate having just volunteered to go to the Athenian arm of Gagosian’s continent-spanning galleries and review Damien Hirst’s most recent foray into exhibitionism. I’m most definitely of two minds about this review since my first piece for Flaneur was a less-than-positive assessment of the Guggenheim in New York and I am probably the least qualified of the ‘Flaneurs’ to review an art exhibition of any kind. However, spurred on by encouraging words of “It’s all about feeling and perception,” from the Chief of our little magazine tribe, I decide to make myself useful as an Athenian resident. Apprehension quickly turned into my usual knee-jerk reflex to modern art, confusion. It went a little like this:
“Yeah, randomised colourful ones”
“Not just dots, a whole network of dots, different shapes and sizes”
“It’s a bunch of dots”
“Yeah but they’re supposed to depict some alternate reality or, like, atoms in the universe”
“It’s a bunch of dots”
“Yeah b’… yeah you’re right it’s a bunch of dots”
Optimistic Me challenged Sardonic Me to a game of “who can figure out the worth of modern art?” and lost in straight sets once again. Needless to say I tried to keep an open mind and, since I was working on a tight schedule, decided to collate as much material as possible about the exhibitions and to learn a bit about what I was going to see. Something I’d completely neglected to do at the Guggenheim. Optimistic Me was down but not out.
I read and read, I looked at other works and Sardonic Me was growing triumphant once again. The Gagosian site proffered a few articles on the subject, one of which was written by Blake Gopnik in Daily Beast and the other was an interview with the artist himself. As if reeling from a haymaker I came out of reading the two articles more confused than before I went in. Hirst, the artist pray remember, described the spot paintings as an alternate reality. One which makes you jump for joy then settle uneasily out of focus. Then Mr Gopnik, expert of the hour, calls it an exact representation of our reality. The dots are atoms and all the world a canvass, so to speak. If the artist and oh-knowledgeable-one can’t agree on the bloody thing then how am I supposed to? I’m supposed to make my own interpretation? Such power in the hands of Sardonic Me is a proven disaster in waiting.
The result was that, despite knowing my usual reflex, I decided I was going to make up my own mind, damn it, and that reading up about a piece of art before going to see it is like reading a film review before watching it. By all means learn about how it was made, the intentions of the artist and its place in the wider art world after you’ve seen it but reading beforehand is just asking to be told what to think. Hey, even congratulate yourself with a “snap” if you managed to guess what the artist was going for! There are few things scarier, though, than reticent pseudo-opinions.
The Gagosian Gallery is to the left of Greece’s “Political Corruption Central” and opposite a monument emblazing the words “The hellhole of the Gestapo”. Needless to say the omens were bleak. The positive side was that the only time I could view the exhibition was “by appointment only” and the manageress kindly agreed to fit me in after one of her other (thoughtfully arranged) appointments. Inside the heavy wooden doors the tessellated floorboards creaked as if warning of an imposter in their midst. Just me, the kindly manageress and foreboding silence.
The paintings did look machine driven from a distance and humanly imperfect up close, as Hirst said, I even saw a pin-prick in the centre of a spot which was supposed to attract the paint. The larger spots seemed, to me, dull and lifeless despite their colours. Like slapping lipstick and mascara on a football post. But the small dots, they came to life! Really, I’m not just quoting some art boffin here! I enjoyed them! They were difficult to focus on and they seemed to jump up and down as your head and eyes moved about. The dots which were smaller still had the effect of cloud watching and (sorry to bastardise a lot of hard work on the part of Hirst’s assistants but,) ‘magic eye’ pictures. You start to find pictures within the picture. A witch’s face, a bottle of wine and all other manner of images a psychologist would have a field day with.
Christina Papadopoulou, the young manageress whose erudition astoundingly manages to outweigh her extraordinary prettiness, made an excellent point to the hapless “critic for a day” taking up precious space in her immaculate gallery. She admitted that a lot of contemporary art was crap (already I was beginning to like her) but that contemporary art is all about context. Looking at a bunch of dots is all well and good but you have to look at it in terms of Hirst’s career, the effect it continues to have on the art world and it being the remnants of the Young British Artists movement.
I don’t know anything about all of that but I did like the fact that it was a worldwide exhibition which, to me, exhibited variations of the same thing. I look at these pictures and I see happy dots. Girls in polka-dot dresses just bring a sense of well-being to everybody in the vicinity and these paintings did exactly that for me. And, doing as I was told and thinking about them in context, I realised that there was a hell of a chance that somebody else thousands of miles away in a completely different city and culture was looking at these same dots and being made to feel a little bit happy too. Yes Hirst is the “Gimmick King” and yes this is most definitely one of most expansive but the fact of the matter is that in a country suffering one of is bleakest, greyest eras in all of its history there is a little gem just round the corner offering a splice of colour and joy. Who could argue with that? Not even Sardonic Me. Did Damien Hirst mean it as exactly THIS gimmick? I doubt it, but at the end of the day if 11 people feel the same as I do in 11 different cities across the world then that’s a ‘win’ in my book and I’m very happy I went and smiled at the dots … sorry, spots.