Art & Culture: Damien Hirst has never been afraid of a controversy but do his artworks still shock?
Sacred art or sadistic slaughter?
Love him. Hate him. Deem him overrated, a media-whore or the greatest artist of our time. Whatever you think about Damien Hirst, the chances are you have an opinion. Because there are few living artists who can excite a reaction from the public quite like the 44-year-old British star, even those who have no interest in "art" find they have something to say about Hirst.
So, in many ways, Monaco's Oceanographic Museum couldn't have picked a more perfect candidate to produce an exhibition to mark their 100th birthday. Thanks to Cornucopia, a retrospective of Hirst's work that opened at the end of March, the somewhat traditional institution has garnered the publicity and visitor numbers that its centenary year demands.
Suddenly, and perhaps for the first time, the museum is on the frontline of the contemporary art scene: controversial, cool and cutting edge (at least by the Principality's standards). The response has been overwhelming: last month it was announced that 100,000 people had been to see the expo in its first month, that's a 25 per cent increase on visitors to the museum in this period last year.
So what's all the fuss about? Okay, everyone knows about the pickled sharks, the dissected sheep and the 50 million pound diamond encrusted skull, but what substance is there behind the headlines? Being a retro-spective charting Hirst’s work from the early 1990s to the present, Cornucopia shows us the artist in all his career stages - from the infamous sharks to the butterfly mosaics, from his huge spin paintings to his medicine cabinets: you can see the phases, the various themes that have occupied him and the threads that weave throughout.
On entering the foyer, a dove greets you, its wings stretched aloft, a twig held between its beak: After the Flood, with or without its Biblical allegories, is a simple image, beautiful and striking. It also prepares you for much of what is to follow: Hirst liberally uses animals in his creations; it has always been a controversial aspect of his work and something over which he is routinely criticised.
Continuing on the ground floor you're confronted by The Immortal, a great white, suspended and preserved in 24,000 litres of formaldehyde. Weighing in at 30-tons, the museum has reportedly been forced to strengthen the floor beneath. The Immortal and its sister hammerhead shark, Fear of Flying on the first floor, were reportedly killed some years ago, independently of Hirst. The tiger shark that he preserved back in 1991, however, was executed by a fisherman in Australia at the artist’s behest. Is this a sign that Hirst has softened since then? Changed his attitude to killing for art's sake?
Hardly. Aside from the sharks and dissected sheep (Away from the Flock. Divided) the exhibition is notable for its thousands of butterflies, either preserved whole or with their wings pulled apart and stuck to canvases. It is hard to deny that there is something mesmerizing about Papilio Ulysses and Cymothoe Sangaris: The colours, the way they shift and morph in the light and make patterns. This is an inevitable result of using the real wings of real butterflies - they are as beautiful to look at dead, as they are alive.
Although the butterfly works in Cornucopia are among the show's most recent (dating 2008-2009), Hirst has long been fixated by the delicate creature, for him a metaphor for mortality. For one of his important early works, In And Out of Love (1991), he filled a gallery with hundreds of tropical butterflies (alive and dead).
Using the insect's wings, however, has prompted accusations of sadism from animal rights activists. In 2003, Dawn Carr, European director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), told the Guardian, "One has to wonder if Hirst was the sort of demented child who would pull the wings off flies for fun. He certainly has become that sort of an adult. Butterfly wings are beautiful on a butterfly but tearing small creatures to bits is not art, it's sadism."
Given Prince Albert's passionate commitment to protection of the environment, one might think that an artist carrying the tag of "animal sadist" might sit uneasily with him. However, he has been enthusiastic about the Cornucopia project from the start. And perhaps it's not such a contradiction, because weaved into the museum’s permenant collection (the marine life and sea curios preserved by Prince Albert I in the early 1900s) one can view both Hirst’s work and the antique artefacts in a new, perhaps refracted, light.
Take The Forgiveness for example, a 25-foot cabinet containing over 3,000 insects, including spiders, dragonflies, and scorpions. Reminiscent of the glass display cases of moths and butterflies that the Victorians would keep on their walls, it’s hard to imagine anywhere that the piece could sit more perfectly than in the Oceanographic Museum. The Prince has praised Hirst’s ability to harness science to produce art, drawing parallels with the museum’s founder, his great-great-grandfather. Certainly, there has rarely been a better opportunity to meditate on the themes and ideas that occupy the world’s most famous contemporary artist: religion, money, life and death. Hirst, at least, should be happy. HM