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