Have you ever had a ‘hmmm‘ moment? Hand rubbing chin, frown set between brows, heavy inhale followed by hurried exhale, absolutely unsure of what your opinion is on something, yet aware that you should have one; that kind of hmmm moment.
You see, that was my initial reaction to the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern. I was facing the open mouth of a shark, his sharp teeth an impossible breath away, his eyes reflecting my puzzled look; I was standing in front of the shark piece that ensured notoriety for the artist who is regularly compared to marmite; you either love him or hate him.
However, just then it felt like I lost my sense of taste, as I could not decide if I loved or hated it. Hmmm.
The exhibition was on at the same time Kusama was on, and separated by a floor and a million lightyears of artistic approach, I was (unfairly) comparing the two. Kusama is one of my favourite artists for the things she embeds in what she creates, the thought that goes into the action, the dedication that goes into her practice. This was not something that I could readily feel in the pastel green rooms of the Hirst collection. It did not help that the first room had his spot paintings, that even though was approached with the same precision that Kusama exhibited in her spots, this approach was more scientific (complete uniformity in size, equal distance between them, every spot a different colour) and more, well, obvious. Hmmm.
However, a few steps forward and I came across ‘A thousand Years 1990‘, and I stood in front of it, with a determined fascination. A full life cycle was played out in front of the voyeuristic crowd (a perspex box contains maggots that turn into flies, and fly around an insect-o-cutor, with some getting killed and others living through it), and it immediately ignited my pre-existing interest for the meeting point of art and science. From the stark contrast of the mediums (a clear geometric box containing messy organic matter), to the right of the human over life and death.
I found some of his work impressive, but on a technical level: his work with embalmed animals, the most famous I guess being the shark in The Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living, but also the sheep from Away From the Flock, and it’s counter part, The Black Sheep; the Pharmacy and Trinity-Pharmacology, Physiology and Pathology displays, where he replicates the environment of a pharmacy in the gallery setting (Still and Doubt were similar, yet more powerful); and the Spin Paintings, that even though are truly impressive (and were seen in the Olympics as well), seemed to me to remain in the technical level.
However the point where I started warming up to his art was Dead Ends Died Out, Examined. Cigarette butts were lined along the shelves of a cabinet that came as a precursor to his use of museological display techniques. From the life cycle of a single cigarette to its effects to the life cycle of the smoker, and the value of the object as an exhibit, the work had something threaded through it that resonated with me.
In the same line of thought, I found Lullaby (a meticulously arranged wall of pills) and Judgment Day (a meticulously arranged wall of diamonds) equally interesting and mystifying.
I also liked the butterfly works: In In and Out of Love-White Paintings and Live Butterflies, white canvases embedded with pupae were hung in a specially maintained humid environment; slowly, the butterflies hatch, and fly away from the paintings and around the room, where they are fed on sugar water, fruit and flowers, mate and lay eggs. You then come out of that and walk into the somber In and Out of Love-Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays, where dead butterflies are stuck on patterned paintings, in a room with scattered ashtrays. The duality of life and death as well as beauty and horror are just experienced in the most visceral and disconcerting way, and I remember needing a second to establish what kind of awe I was experiencing: admiration or disgust. A similar mosaic of butterflies can be seen through a spiritual filter in the Doorways in the kingdom of Heaven, Sympathy in White Major-Absolution II and I am become Death, Shatterer of Worlds. It is interesting to see how he combined these paintings with his Anatomy of an Angel sculpture, where an angel is carved from white marble, one side perfect, the other stripped to show the anatomical parts of a human.
I went around through the whole exhibition, and I still had not made up my mind.
I walked past The Incomplete Truth, a white dove trapped in mid-flight, in a moment in time, in formaldehyde, in a room, in between life and death, in between love and hate, in a hmmm moment that you can not really sway on either sides, polar opposites that are closer to each other than they are to their middle.
And I am content to remain in that hmmm moment; because i don’t know if I like it or dislike it. An opinion is not necessary to take away something.