I write this as Damien Hirst hits the headlines again, so it’s no surprise that his recent exhibition at the Tate Modern attracted queues. In the same way that people flocked to see the oddly disturbing Equus when it starred Daniel Radcliffe, Hirst’s name draws crowds for the controversy if not the art itself.
Being slightly younger than the Turner Prize (the controversial art prize which was awarded to Hirst in 1995), I have grown up alongside it and the movement of ‘Young British Artists’ with their media-courting debate-sparking artwork. I am not a particular fan of this movement, but I was desperate to see the Hirst exhibition.
Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside the gallery, please see the Tate website – here – for some images. Exhibits included the like of the famous shark in formaldehyde (“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”), a sealed chamber containing rotting meat and flies, a live butterfly room and plenty of art with medicinal and pharmaceutical tones. Andy, as we walked round, kept stating what I could hear plenty of other people debating also; is this art? From Andy’s point of view some of it was no good at all, and some of it (such as the preserved creatures) were good – as science.
I do not want to state one way or another whether this is ‘art’ or not. Personally art is in the eye of the beholder, curator (and, unfortunately all too often the self-righteous critics of this world). But my argument as we walked through the gallery was; have we not crossed these boundaries between art and science before? Has taxidermy not always crossed boundaries? At one time it may have been done for pleasure or scientific curiosity (or in fact both, at the same time) by gentlemen of leisure. Now these specimens continue to provide dual purposes in museums, where we study extinct species or show our children the wonders of the world.
In the same way, Hirst’s harnessing of nature, from the grotesque rotting of flesh to the beautiful mimicry of stained glass window made from butterflies, straddles boundaries. Boundaries between observation, curation, art, and sometimes even plain craziness. What is important, I realised, as I walked around the Tate, was not whether or not this was art, but that it was a catalyst for debate, for awakening people’s curiosity, and for getting London, and much of the UK, talking.