Damien Hirst is arguably the most important living British artist, having had a huge influence on the entire landscape of the contemporary art scene. One of the pioneers of the group formerly known as the Young British Artists, or YBAs, which were given extra momentum through the sponsorship of Charles Saatchi, Hirst has been a controversial and provocative figure, creating works that have become immediately recognisable, from his Spot Paintings to his butterfly paintings to dead animals in vitrines.
Hirst burst into the art world in 1988 when he spearheaded the famous exhibition Freeze while still a student at Goldsmiths College of Art in South London. This show included future luminaries such as Mat Collishaw, Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas. Hirst showed an innate understanding of the art world and media coverage by ensuring that prominent figures attended the exhibition, including Saatchi, Nick Serota and Norman Rosenthal. During Freeze, Hirst first showed a group of coloured boxes arranged spatially within the large, open-plan building in Surrey Docks. Later, he installed what are considered his first Spot Paintings, applying the colour directly to the white wall. This launched one of Hirst’s most iconic themes. The Spot Paintings take notions of order and regularity and colourism and subvert them all. The colours tend to be arranged so that no two are the same, creating a visual dissonance and dynamism. The dots also recall the growing awareness of order in our increasingly technological world.
Technology, science and in particular medicine are sources of fascination to Hirst. In a number of works he investigates the idea that in our more secular age, large numbers of people put their faith in doctors rather than priests, and seek not so much immortality after death as a prolonged life. Hirst has expressed his fascination with, ‘The whole notion that science can actually heal, can even resurrect someone. That’s interesting, that. Science as the new religion. Literally’ (Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst: New Religion, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. viii). His interest in these concerns, and in the notion that art itself is a quest for immortality, has long provided the foundation of his work. So Hirst created his 1991 masterpiece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark suspended in formaldehyde in a large-scale vitrine. This is suspended animation, a creature shown in an imitation of life, a probing of the entire nature of death and our inability to comprehend it to any true extent. Hirst’s dialogue with life, death and beauty was also explicitly explored in his first one-man show, held that same year, entitled In and Out of Love. In this exhibition, he presented two rooms, one in which butterflies were hatched and flew towards canvases, and another in which dead butterflies were affixed to paint surfaces. The cycle of life and the nature of beauty were thus both probed by the artist.
These works set important precedents for Hirst, who has constantly tackled similar and related subjects, be it in his monochrome paintings made of vast numbers of flies, forming a bizarre crust on the picture surface, or his medicine cabinets, or his ornate butterfly paintings arranged to resemble stained glass windows. Perhaps the ultimate culmination of this investigation of ideas of death, life, belief and immortality came in the diamond-encrusted skull that he showed in 2007, For the Love of God. That title, at once playful and profound, cuts to the heart of the subjects that drive Hirst. These are universal themes in the modern world, and this helps to explain his continued relevance and popularity.
14 October – 13 December 2014