His fascination for all that is macabre defines his work. You can argue that it does not qualify as art in the purest sense but Damien Hirst does not care. A retrospective of his work at the Tate Modern museum, London, spans three decades and exemplifies his obsession with death and the idea of mortality we must all face up to some day. For someone who is familiar with the name but not his work, Hirst's exhibition does what the artist once sought: to shock and shame. Others, who have followed his brilliant debut and subsequent denouement, would do well to liken it to his butterfly exhibit where the flaming beauty flounders after being trapped within the walls of an inescapable tome.
The Hirst retrospective is likely to attract tourists visting London for the Games
His ideas of death were excitable, even original, when he created his early works in his 20s. The lack of vulnerability and the play with death exhibited in all these early works seemed brave and awe-inspiring. But his preoccupation with an ideal that has become the norm over time has left him open to harsh critics who now see him as nothing more than a 'con artist'.
While it is almost fashionable to shun Hirst as a skill-less artist with a mercenary streak, one can't deny the impact he has had on British art since he began in the 80s. The first time I saw his work was at the Saatchi Gallery in London in the summer of 2003. At the time I was fascinated, repulsed, but hooked. Nine years later, his work wears the sheen of over-compensation and there has been minimal artistic evolution. The same theme of death has now been dressed up by him in sparkles to give it a 'human' face (the diamond skull) which Hirst claims is his most 'alive' creation ever.
At Tate Modern, room two of the retrospective houses, A Thousand Years (1990), which showcases Hirst at his best. The severed head of a cow lies in a pool of dark liquid in a large glass case injected with formaldehyde. To play out the circle of life, a box of maggots are placed in the glass box which over time hatch into flies that feed on the congealed blood, get full and are then zapped to their death by an insect-o-cutor placed within the same box. One can't deny that the concept is fascinating and perhaps one of his finest works, one that was high on the shock meter. Yet as you make your way from room to room the senselessness of this preoccupation seeps through: rooms full of shiny glass shelves housing pills and medicine bottles; the work titled The Acquired Inability to Escape, which showcases another glass box with a desk, chair, ashtray and pack of cigarettes. Much of it is like a bipolar dance between subtle and over the top.
By the time you get to the humid, greenhouse-effect room that houses his butterflies, you are waiting for him to redeem himself. In and out of Love, as this is called, was originally create in 1991 and this is the first time is has been showcased in entirety. As you walk around the room where butterflies drunk on sugar and fruit dance to their eventual death you are terrified of stepping on one of them. In this case, the flitting creatures are the art as well as the artists as pupae pinned to the boards develop into butterflies and hatch before escaping to ultimate freedom in death: both beautiful and disturbing.
But the piece de resistance of the collection remains his 2007 work For the Love of God, a humn skull encrusted with a wealth of glittering diamonds and showcased in a black room on the ground floor of the museum (only till end-June), isolated from the rest of his collection. While Hirst's legacy may not be appreciated by most, his contribution to th art world remains undeniable and for that and his ability to consistently play with the death motif, we recommend a fleeting visit.Damien Hirst, the retrospective, is showing at Tate Modern until 9th September 2012; www.tate.org.uk