Thursday, 31 May 2012

Damien Hirst


I'm always admired Hirst's work, the links he makes between medicine and religion fascinate me, so I was excited yet sceptical about seeing his retrospective at Tate Modern, could it live up to my expectations? The exhibition has had major coverage and reviews aplenty so it was hard entering the show without any prejudices or preconceived ideas, I've always defended Hirst so I was a bit apprehensive that I'd leave the exhibition disappointed... thankfully this wasn't the case, although I did leave feeling a little despondent but more on that later...

I naturally was drawn towards to vitrine's housing various animals from the "Natural History" collection: 'Away From the Flock' was a particular favourite along with its companion 'Black Sheep' - both sheep captured mid frolic looked so happy and serene - dare I say it life-like and alive. However both sheep appeared isolated as their titles suggest both metaphorically and physically. This sense of separation between the animal and viewer is something I'd never considered before in regards to the work, seeing them in books you aren't as aware of the glass divide between human and animal, yet once your actually standing in-front of the work, it then became a very important part of the experience, it is no longer a barnyard animal but a specimen, trapped forever in a tragic state.
"The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" is of course the piece that brought Hirst his media infamy and I have to admit its a stunning piece of art - the shark appears to move and almost swim as you walk past due to the reflections/refractions of the light/glass/formaldehyde, it's a animal of eerie beauty, something you can't help but admire and fear in equal measures, yet like the sheep it looks peaceful and almost sad - with the wound from its capture and wrinkled flesh, there's a pathos to the creature that surprised me... a similar reaction was evoked by 'Mother and Child Divided' - there's a strange paradox of Hirst both preserving and destroying the cattle, yet its common place in medicine and science - in order to study a creature and fully understand its make-up you need to kill and dissect it... seeing the cows looking life-like and alive and then walking between their bisected bodies is a surreal experience, and I was amazed by the formation of organs and skeletal structure which if cropped and taken out of context in places looked like ceramic forms or geological slides.

The Pharmacy and medical artwork really grabbed my attention in a way I wasn't expecting it too, of course I have a huge fascination with medicine and anatomy but I was left mesmerized by some of the pieces on display, seeing an endless array of packaging made me realize that medicine is no different from any other commodity - the goal is to sell... considering it was a field of science that mankind ventured into on a quest to aid fellow man, it quickly became a power struggle with man wanting to steal from the Gods and indeed play God, to controlling life and having the power to cure, naturally this power gets abused, just think of pharmaceutical companies who control patents on medicines and sell them to the highest bidder rather than sell them/give them to the people who actually need them, this is were I started to feel despondent...
"Still" containing rows of surgical instruments methodically displayed and categorized in mirrored cabinets, made me feel overwhelmingly uncomfortable, their usage isn't what disturbed me - it was the bitter realization that humans in need of medical attention and surgery are basically an endless factory line of "customers", there's very little time for the medical staff to build a personal relationship before the next "customer" is shipped in, its something I've never thought of before, of course medical staff do their best to build a rapport and care for patients but I suppose for their own sakes they can't get too attached to their patients... it's all a bit sad...
"Lullaby: The Seasons" was an especially powerful piece, like the other works from the Pharmacy series it deals with the idea of palliative care, and the blind faith people hold in modern [and indeed ancient] medicine , the rows of colour coded replica's of pills arranged in the order/colours of the seasons of course instantly conjured images of the life cycle - going from birth to death, but with nothing to fill the before and after life... There's a quote from Hirst in the exhibition booklet which states: "You can only cure people for so long and then they're going to die anyway" shocked me slightly, I'd never thought of medicine in those terms before, of course its a very half-empty way of looking at things but nonetheless its true. 

The exhibition reminded me of Fred Langford Edwards' work 'apothecaries, archives and icons' currently exhibiting at Oriel Mostyn, whilst invigilating the exhibition a few visitors have remarked on the similarities between Fred's photographic collection of medicine bottles from the Museum of Medicine in Quito, Ecuador . It explores the role of the museum in today's society and its historical role as a house of knowledge, it also charts the history of medicine in Ecuador and compares the faith people hold in science to religious faith.



It's sounding like the exhibition is all doom and gloom, which I thought it was - but not in a bad way, it's an exhibition that made me think and question what I was seeing, of course I liked it because of my interest in anatomy and religion, but beneath the glossy shiny factory produced sheen of Hirst's work and reputation lies some very deep and clever observations on modern medicine/science and indeed religion and societies relationship with the fields... it's well worth a visit...



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