March 27, 2023

Damien Hirst: Chortling All The Way To The Bank

When Damien Hirst was organising Freeze, I was studying art history in Australia. While he painted a few boxes and stuck them on the wall (Boxes, 1988), I wrote about Michelangelo painting the Sistine Ceiling. As Hirst befriended Saatchi and got free rein to suspend a shark in a tank of formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991), I marvelled over Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for a helicopter, and as Hirst sawed his first animals in half (Mother and Child Divided, 1993), I was being awed by Picasso’s ability to evoke a bull from a bicycle seat and set of handlebars. Being so far away both in distance and art historical period, the YBA phenomenon blowing up in Britain largely passed me by aside from sensational news articles about sharks in tanks and the money Hirst was making from art. Feeling like I’d missed the whole thing, in 2012 I went to the Tate Modern on the second day of Damien Hirst’s retrospective to finally try and get the picture. It was more a stench.

The first thing you see when you collect your tickets is the big Damien Hirst sign in the Turbine Hall – and the queue. We joined it. We were allowed into the guarded, darkened cube with a dozen others to look in awe at the bejewelled skull with the creepy 18th century teeth. We exited feeling like we’d just been let in on a secret. And then we stared around the empty Turbine Hall and wondered where the rest of the show was. Was this it? The ultimate Damien Hirst art-event? £14 to look at one massively expensive piece of art? But no, the rest of the show was on floor three. I was almost disappointed – surely the ultimate art egotism would be the one-piece retrospective and from what I’d heard of Hirst he’s capable of this.

In the first room, I was definitely disappointed. Some painted frypans, a photograph of the teenage Hirst cuddling up to severed head preserved for science, those painted wall boxes and a hairdryer suspending a pingpong ball in mid-air. It was his early work. It was pretty rough.

In the second room there was another queue forming – and a smell. The queue was for the installation three rooms away (more of that later). The smell was from the rotting cow’s head bathing the Tate’s wooden floor in blood and besieged by flies (A Thousand Years, 1990). I preferred the written explanation to the artwork. Not many people were spending long looking at this work. Even those stood next to it in the endless queue for Room 6 were avoiding looking at it.

Nearby were dead fish in cases on the wall, across the rooms were the shark, the dead and sawn up cows. There was a lot of death. And a lot of repetition. On the walls were spot paintings. More repetition. And this time not even by Hirst’s own hand. He has a studio of people painting them for him. His only instruction is that the colours not repeat and the spots be perfectly round. Essentially there’s no issue with having painting assistants, artists have long worked with studios of painters from the Renaissance through to Warhol’s Factory, but Hirst has ‘produced’ and sold around 1400 of these paintings. Is he an artist or an industrial designer? I was unmoved by the spot paintings as they felt like décor rather than art. But perhaps it was just too hard to spend the necessary time with them due to the stench of the cow’s head. (Remember this was only day two of putrefaction.)

By now I had joined the queue for Room 6. 35 people were being allowed it at one time for 2 minutes each. The exhibit was alive: butterflies. It was In and Out of Love, 1991, his white canvases embedded with pupae from which butterflies hatch and fly around the humid room until they die. For the first time in the show I was mesmerised. But it was nature blowing my mind, not Hirst. Although it was Hirst who had created this scenario for my mind to be blown. In his recent review for The Evening Standard, Brian Sewell attacks Hirst for “vain, cold-blooded inhumanity” to butterflies and despises anyone who would take pleasure in this sort of death chamber in the name of art. I find myself agreeing. It was beautiful being so up-close and appreciative of the butterflies but at what cost to the creatures themselves? A whole debate about butterfly sentience is surely to start swirl around dinner party tables. Damien Hirst does make you think about life cycles and death. And art. And the death of art.

The final concept in the show – and I suddenly stopped and realised that in this whole major, lauded retrospective there are actually only about five different concepts (spots, formaldehyde, butterflies, pharmacology, and cigarette butts) – is the pharmacology (Pharmacy 1992). Repeatedly in various rooms you have reconstructions of pharmacy cabinets. Yes, the boxes are quite aesthetic designwise. Yes, putting a lot of anything together makes it powerful. Yes, we are a culture of drug-munchers. And yes, the pills lined up on shelves in huge, beautifully constructed wall cabinets following themes of Summer, Winter, Autumn, Spring are mesmerising – the most mesmerising thing in the show. Bar one: in the final room, the patterns constructed from dead butterflies evoking stained glass windows and rose windows are divine. At least he puts the butterflies he kills to good use.

And then it was all over. Five ideas, thrashed to the nth degree. Is this really over two decades work? Is it really the stuff that a £200 million career is made of? Last year I saw Gerhard Richter’s retrospective and it had about four times the number of pieces, crossed media and style and genre, and excited, experimented and developed. I didn’t see Hirst do any of this. I saw him repeat and repeat and reap.

These days you can’t see any works by Richter at the Tate Modern. Nor by Pollock or Rothko. Hirst has driven them out, taken over their usual home on the third floor. As the gallery attendant I queried said: that’s the power of Hirst.

After seeing the show I watched Channel 4’s Damien Hirst: The First Look. For that hour and the following two he had me. His cheeky charm sucked me in. I was on board for Damien Hirst the myth, the legend, the brand. When the effects of the Hirst drug wore off, the comedown left me feeling ashamed, a little dirty, used. Is that why he and Saatchi fell out after all those years of patronage? Is this how his galleries felt after the artist they had helped create cut them out of the process and made his next showing an auction at Sotheby’s? Or Cartrain who dared to appropriate Hirst’s bejewelled skull and suffered the legal consequences? I have to admit Hirst is a genius but of commerce not art, of cult not content. He’s a brand, not an artist.

I’m glad I saw the exhibition, I now feel informed. And I’m glad Damien Hirst exists because I think he’s kept cranking the debate of what is art. But your work here is done, Damien. Take your spoils and let the real artists back into the Tate Modern.


Philippa Burne



Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, 4 April-9 September, 2012.

4 Comments on Damien Hirst: Chortling All The Way To The Bank

  1. I love how you’ve located yourself in this article – the parallels in chapter 1 are a great way of illustrating your point about Hirst the ‘brand’, and how his name, not his artistic ability, has gained notoriety across the world.

    I certainly think he has a place at the Tate. I think it’s right that he should have this major retrospective. But I’ve watched so many programmes and read so many articles on it now that I don’t feel I’d gain anything by going myself. It seems the entire exhibition can be covered in a couple of minutes of footage, or just a few hundred words.

    Thanks for this one.

  2. Well done… this is a really informed, intelligent commentary on Hirst and the exhibition. I felt exactly as you did when I went to see the exhibition. I had always derided the guys work from images in magazines, the concepts and TV appearances/reports but thought it important to go and see for myself. I was surprised that there were moments of pleasure in those rooms. However, the overwhelming feeling was one of repetition , as though the man had only 2/3 good ideas in his whole career and those were overused. A man concerned with making money who has cheapened his currency.

    You only have to go up a flight to see Yayoi Kusama’s work and in one room you have more ideas that Hirst has had in his whole career. A true artist. Growth, experimentation, pain, passion and artistry.

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