This spring 2004 exhibition in Tate Britain is a triumph of beauty and horror. And if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is horror. It follows then that beauty and horror can be one and the same thing – and so it goes in this garbled Garden of Eden.
Sarah Lucas’ picture of a magnified pepperoni pizza makes an innocently enticing food into a grotesque goo. Is it so that no one will order another one? Why lament consumerism while one is part of it? Damien Hirst is completely honest: “Stop buying it and they’ll stop selling it. It’s your own fault.” I think he was talking about his own art.
Angus Fairhurst’s Underdone/Overdone Wallpaper has an overwhelming sense of mysterious beauty even if the description of its making sounds purposely chilling. Fairhurst says: “Keep adding until you can’t add anything else. Take everything away until there is nothing left.” A simultaneous filling and emptying, so to speak. It really is just a photo of a forest that he reproduced by applying the three primary colours – red, yellow, blue – repeatedly using thirty silk-screens. This process of emptying and obliteration is apparently also in his large beautiful pictures of plays on consumer adverts and billboards by cutting out the bodies depicted.
Damien Hirst compares Fairhurst’s method with his own, “…with Fairhurst’s work there is always a sense of him saying and denying something at the same time…I do it the other way around and start this presentation with a big meaning that as soon as you try to get hold of it, I try to get rid of it with a joke.” So the art is meant to leave the viewer in an empty space?
But Hirst’s own installations are no joke. In The Collector, an animatronics figure in laboratory garb examines butterfly wings under a microscope, unconcerned with all the live butterflies and beautiful flowers around him. Collecting is possession, not appreciation. What is he looking for under the microscope? A means of classification?
As is true of all his pieces in this show, the attention to detail and precision of fabrication give form to his often ambitious vision; though in this case, it’s describing the narrowness of vision.
The architect Philip Johnson is said to have declared: “You can not not know history.” What he meant, I think, is that history is naturally embedded in everything that we are today, our genes, our culture. We are the results of history. In the turbulent 1960s, artists struggled to take art out of the picture frame, out of the museum, and themselves out of the choking hand of the collector/patron. Judging from this show, they have partly succeeded. Many of their works are no longer in frames or on pedestals. But they are still in museums and galleries, if not always physically. As for the choking hand of the collector/patron, many artists have decided to join their ranks or manipulate them by participating in the commercial side of the art scene, benefiting from the huge potential of branding and consumer awareness of them as celebrities, thanks to Warhol. By reaching a large audience, they are able to free themselves from the whims of a few powerful patrons.
Perhaps none of these really matter. Visual art is ultimately about looking at forms and colours. Entering the exhibition and looking east, one cannot help but be mesmerized by Damien Hirst’s Baroque church, complete with the crucifixion surrounded by stained glass windows in the form of panels of butterfly wings, plus the sound of bubbling water as music. This then makes one overlook the trifling literalness of the gorilla contemplating its own reflection or the crucifixion made of cigarettes.
What then is art? That’s not the question here.