October 14, 2008

Damien Hirst exhibit, MCA Denver

On Friday I went to the opening night of the Damien Hirst gallery exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver. Hirst is a modern British artist who I probably first heard about when watching the Live Forever documentary about British pop culture in the Nineties. He was mentioned in the same breath as Oasis and Blur, as an artist who embodied the break from the old, the hedonism, and the challenging of new boundaries.

The first piece of Hirst’s that I saw was last October when I went to visit my best girls in New York City. His most famous piece The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living (1991) is a 12 foot tiger shark suspended in bluish-green formaldehyde. That’s it. There was a layer of shark oil floating on the top. Leaking. I will admit I felt like prey, standing there in front of its huge jaws, looking at its rows of teeth, so impotent, so harmless now.

This current exhibit in Denver (now through August ’09) consists of four pieces, but the most buzzed about is the St Sebastian, Exquisite Pain (2007), because, well, it’s a gutted calf strung to a steel post, pierced through with arrows. And there’s formaldehyde again. Two of the other pieces involve butterflies –so gorgeous and ethereal in life– dead and pasted onto painted canvases en masse, while the final is a portion of his famous Pharmacy display (1992) of bottles and pills and potions stoically beaming from shelves.

As one who cut my own art history teeth on Renaissance art and the search for the beautiful, the transcendent, Hirst’s exhibit raises interesting talking points about what art is, and what (if anything) its function can be. My companion to the show is a fierce visual artist herself, so I enjoyed bouncing ideas off her — what is he trying to say or make us think about with this one? Threads of death and life and pain and modern apathy all came up in our conversations.

The calf startled me in several ways. I felt nothing but detached when I looked at him front on. Then to my right, and around to the back — brutal but clinical. But when I moved around to the fourth side, suddenly there was something sad and familiar and almost sensual about the curve of his head as it lay to the side. Strange and startling to see a bit of that ecstasy-in-death that I am so familiar with in Renaissance art. I had similar thoughts while studying the hundreds of butterflies arranged in neat geometric patterns in death. That’s what I appreciate about contemporary art — the ability to ambush you.

St. Andrew (The Battle Is In The Air) – White Stripes
Butterfly Nets – Bishop Allen
The Drugs Don’t Work (live on Jools Holland, 1997) – The Verve

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  • dare I say it, I think the Hirst emperor has no clothes; an exceptional marketer rather than a conceptual genius. but then that’s the beauty of contemporary art – it’s open to all kind of interpretation.
    great post nonetheless and great that you got so much out of it! :-)

    Barry — October 15, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  • I interviewed an economics professor named Don Thompson not too long ago who has written a whole analysis of the phenomenon of Hirst and Saatchi. You might get a kick out of the book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. Here’s my bit from Kirkus Reviews:

    Even economists get confused about the value of art. Just ask contemporary art collector Don Thompson, who sets out to explore its financial alchemy, starting with the arcane fish tale by Damien Hirst that inspired the title. “I’m an economist who loves to go to auctions, and yet you look at this field and say,‘I don’t understand it,’ ” says Thompson. “I thought a $12 million stuffed shark was pretty symbolic of what I was talking about. Hirst didn’t stuff it, catch it or mount it. He signed it. So I set out knowing that there was an interesting problem but not knowing exactly what it was, if there was a solution, or if I could find it.” His own uncertainty notwithstanding, Thompson takes readers on a transfixing journey through the British and American art communities, the mysterious back rooms of auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s and the electrified environment that feeds the multimillion-dollar art market. Covering artists from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons, Thompson also discovers a startling number of fakes as well as the influence wielded by collectors like Charles Saatchi, who earns a chapter.
    “One of the great surprises I found in talking to auction houses is how many truly rich people there are,” says Thompson. “In a way, you think you know it. But then you’re told that an auction venue thinks there are 125 potential bidders for a $100 million piece of art. They have a list. It stops you short.”

    Clayton Moore — October 15, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  • Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. – Andy Warhol

    DAVIDD — October 15, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

  • i don’t know if i can ever eat steak again

    Julio Enriquez — October 16, 2008 @ 6:56 am

  • so long as you don’t soak it in formaldehyde first, you’ll probably be ok.

    heather — October 16, 2008 @ 7:00 am

  • Thats a good maxim to live by right there

    Paul — October 16, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  • Warhol said “Art is anything you can get away with” – I hate to agree with him but that totally sums up art for me. When you have a factory turning out “art” like Hirst and Koons, and investors competing to buy based on nothing more than greed, then you can kiss goodbye to talent. Its marketing to millionaires and nothing more. What gets me mad are galleries competing in this marketplace to own one piece when for the same money they could be encouraging a thousand other artists.

    Jim — October 16, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  • Jim, i think the same argument could be made for the mainstream music industry.

    heather — October 16, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  • @ jim. warhol is pretty much the nostradamus of contemporary life. at times it is difficult to agree with the sentiment behind his statements ’cause they seem so callous and bleak but they are incredibly accurate none the less.

    DAVIDD — October 16, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

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