At first I asked myself, so what? So what if there are cabinets stacked from head to toe with everyday pills and special medicines that you could find at the local chemist, or cigarette butts, a room of surgical equipment, or spot variations everywhere? After leaving the exhibition when I first saw it I was torn. I was not sure if I liked what I saw or if I was disgusted by it and the artist. Only during the second viewing did I begin to appreciate what I saw at the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern.
The pretentions of contemporary art are addressed in the first room; coloured pots and pans displayed in a line, “art” which I am not a fan of because I feel like I am searching for meaning when really all I see are pots and pans. However, what I found especially intriguing in this room was a picture of Hirst as a teenager posing next to a dead head. The contrast in expressions are particularly interesting; a smiling Damien next to a squashed facial expression of a decapitated man. From the off, I was confused by Hirst’s thinking but also intrigued by the artist who had the courage to put his head within a few centimetres of a dead man.
The second room was far more interesting. Behold, here was A Thousand Years, an installation I was excited but apprehensive to see, and I was not disappointed. A large glass case divided in two; one half containing a box with unborn flies the other half containing a cow’s head and an insect-o-cutor. In both: houseflies flying, and houseflies dead, on the floor and in the tray of the insect killer. The concept simple: the lifecycle, but in an unnatural setting. I found this installation disgusting but riveting. I had conflicting emotions of intrigue and not wanting to look, and the second time I visited the exhibition I observed it for longer; the spontaneity of flight, the eyes of the cow, the death incurred on the insect killer.
“A Thousand Years” Photograph: Damien Hirst and Science Ltd/Prudence Cuming Associates
The Mother and Child Divided was another installation I was excited to see. I thought it was cruel to see both mother and child divided in two, revealing their insides. I couldn’t help but ask is this art, or a science lesson? I walked cautiously in between the two halves of the cow, seeing the tongue, stomachs, intestines, all pickled in formaldehyde. I saw in a documentary about the exhibition that the first time Hirst cut through the cow, he cut the head in an awkward angle and so had to start from scratch. Is this right? Killing animals for art? This made me feel sceptical about Hirst’s art as these animals were killed for the purpose of being exhibited. I even felt a little sorry for the houseflies.
The butterfly house (In and Out of Love) was thrilling and frightening for me. I feared the unpredictability of the butterflies, regardless of how beautiful and graceful they were. I felt embarrassed at how on edge I was whilst everyone else happily allowed the butterflies to perch on them; they looked like giant moths to me. Once again the lifecycle is presented in an unnatural setting; we are transported to the tropics for mere minutes, but once we leave, are brought back to reality. What is sad about the butterflies included in the exhibition is that they were bred to be included in his artwork; the stained glass windows made with butterfly wings I think are the most beautiful pieces of work in the exhibition.
The exhibition ends with a dove suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. After all the expressions of death’s inevitability and uncertainty of life, we are left with the symbol of hope. I left the exhibition feeling somewhat uplifted, and my opinion of Hirst had changed. I felt he was not only a fantastic artist, but also a genius. This exhibition is definitely worth visiting because it shocks, but is also very beautiful.