Sunday, 9 December 2007

Who's afraid of Damien Hirst?

In the true spirit of our attempt to create an active dialogue on art, my blog entry is reactionary. I have been compelled to defend one of my favorite contemporary artists from a sneaky snub that Will issued in the title of his entry on the sale Guennol Lioness: At least it’s not another Damien Hirst.

I was lucky enough to see my first Damien Hirst a few weeks ago while walking through the ongoing Turner Prize Retrospective at the Tate Britain. There are numerous works in the show worth seeing including the Gilbert and George mural, the disorienting and consuming room of Anish Kapoor sculptures, and the Gillian Wearing video of twenty-six police men standing in silence for sixty minutes; however, I am going to limit my entry to Damien Hirst’s compelling work Mother and Child Divided (1993). Mother and Child Divided is a display of a cow and calf both cut length-wise. Each half is presented floating in a glass case of formaldehyde.

Damien Hirst is one of the most controversial artists alive today. Critics of Hirst insist that his works rely too heavily on shock value and are ultimately thin in substance, delivering one liners to its viewers. What’s funny is that Hirst is one of my favorite contemporary artists because I think his works achieve a balance between shock value and layered commentary.

Indeed, the sight of a severed cow and calf is shocking. However, since when has its ability to provoke a powerful emotional response been cited as a work’s downfall? Britain’s own Roger Fry evaluated the merits of a work on its ability to stir the emotions. While Hirst has somewhat removed the conventional formal artistic expression that Fry demanded be the source of such provocations, it is interesting to note that Hirst refers to shock value as a formal element. He says that shock is the only way to make “life and death visible.”

In this way I see Hirst connecting and balancing the initial arresting impact of his works with the deeper contemplations that should keep the sensitive viewer lingering. Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate and also a Courtauld Alum, supports this interpretation of Hirst’s work:

Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided is a work which can at first glance be read as nothing more than two brutally severed carcasses... For me, the undoubted shock, even disgust provoked by the work is part of its appeal. Art should be transgressive. Life is not all sweet. Walking between the two halves and seeing the isolation of the calf from the cow encourages deeper readings of the work. (Nicholas Serota 'Who's afraid of modern art?')

Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided is a meditation on fundamental questions of life and death. Looking at the delicate tissue and complex network of organs that sustain biological life inspire contemplations on its simultaneously miraculous and base nature. Hirst reinforces this binary between the miraculous and the base nature of biological life in his title. Mother and Child Divided is no doubt meant to prompt images of the Virgin and Child and a reverence for the mystical origins of life; that he divides the mother and child from eachother, however, also suggests that we are plagued by a kind of spiritual alienation and lead a purposeless life. The work thus forces the viewer to confront their own mortality and ask serious questions about the nature of their existence. For that Hirst should be celebrated, not scorned.


- Vanessa N.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello. I am actually doing the Japanese to English translation for the Turner Prize retrospective at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. I bumped into your blog because I am looking for the actual English quote from Hirst on his commentary about the shocked reaction the piece first got when it was unveiled at that exhibition.

The cow caused problems for Hirst when coming through CUSTOMS, because here in Japan there is still a ban on beef from England due to BSE!

I find that funny. No commentary about controversy, just don't want dodgy beef in the country!

Carl in Osaka