Damien Bares His Soul
Source:Telegraph Date: 2003-09-12 Size:
It is a critical commonplace to say that the work of many young British artists, from Tracey Emin to Sam Taylor Wood and Richard Billingham is almost wholly autobiographical. Less often noted is that the same is true of Damien Hirst.

The Four Evangelists by Damien Hirst

It is a critical commonplace to say that the work of many young British artists, from Tracey Emin to Sam Taylor Wood and Richard Billingham is almost wholly autobiographical. Less often noted is that the same is true of Damien Hirst.

Hirst may be the most irritating artist alive, but at the heart of his work he reveals his deepest fears and hopes, vices and virtues, fantasies and memories. True to form, his show of new work at the White Cube Gallery could easily be called "Memories of a Catholic Boyhood", and, before I say another word, I have to admit to a childhood praying in dark churches before banks of flickering candles.

Anyone who has been exposed in childhood to the rich mythology and visual imagery of Catholicism knows that extremes of good and evil, heaven and hell, eternal happiness or unbearable suffering are buried deep in the psyche for life.

As a child, I thought that a statue of a man with an axe in the middle of his skull was nothing unusual, and, as an adult, I look at pictures of saints being crucified upside-down or skinned alive without a care in the world. I love impossibly ornate Mexican altars covered in gold, embalmed body parts in jewelled reliquaries, and the cruel drama of Counter Reformation painting. Whether this disqualifies me from giving an objective account of Hirst's new work I can't say, but I absolutely loved the show.

On the entrance wall of the main gallery at White Cube, two kaleidoscopic collages made of iridescent butterfly wings seem to radiate their own inner light, their endlessly beautiful patterns of colour as rich and sombre as those in medieval stained glass windows. Beyond them, Hirst has installed the gallery so that it resembles a church, complete with nave, side aisles, a high altar and a dozen side altars.

These "side altars" are in fact large, stainless steel, glass-fronted cabinets, each representing a martyred apostle. Inside them, among the glass vials and medicine bottles, you find the gruesome means by which the followers of Christ met their death by bludgeon, spear, axe, stone, saw, noose and pliers. There are blood-soaked purses, skulls, rosaries, crucifixes, plasma bags, mounds of earth, laboratory equipment and bandages. Blood is smeared, dripped and spattered over most of the vitrines, and often spills down on to the walls and floor.

Had all this been arbitrary or mindless, I'd have dismissed it as a publicity stunt. But Hirst has thought hard about how each saint lived and died, and given him the appropriate attribute for his martyrdom, just as in Renaissance and baroque art. And so, Hirst represents St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, by a bloody basin and a cruel, forceps-like instrument. St Peter was crucified upside-down, so all the objects in his cabinet are topsy-turvy. Judas, of course, hanged himself, and so gets a noose plus coils of blood-drenched rubber hosing spilling out on to the floor, like guts.

What Hirst is doing, I think, is not in any conventional sense religious. Rather, he is giving concrete form to the stories he heard as a child. In doing this, he is telling us about the origins of his dark imagination. Baudelaire said that genius was "childhood recovered at will", and Hirst is trying to recreate through art the frisson of horror such stories have for all children.

Blood and gore are relatively easy to do in art. What about goodness? The central space is taken up by an installation symbolising the Last Supper. Twelve cow's or bull's heads in low steel and glass tanks filled with formaldehyde represent the apostles. Judas alone gets a black receptacle turned to the wall, and he alone is shown blindfolded. The animal carcasses are used to show that the apostles were real people whose bodies were subject to corruption.

By contrast, at the head of the imaginary table is a clear glass tank. It represents the pure and ethereal spirit of Jesus. On the wall behind the Last Supper, a mirror-backed cabinet, like a retable behind a high altar, is left empty to symbolise the Ascension of Christ into Heaven.

Above it, a series of glass shelves crowded with clear glass vessels rises up to the ceiling, precisely the symbol Jan Van Eyck used to represent the pure soul. The whole thing is surmounted by a stuffed dove, a representation of the second person in the Trinity. It may not be Bernini's High Altar at St Peter's, but for an irreligious reformed drunk and drug addict living in 21st-century Britain, the whole thing is still pretty impressive.

But then God loves His strayed sheep, and Hirst is a lapsed Catholic, like a suspiciously large number of conceptual artists. For me, the works at White Cube have the immediacy of high baroque art and the vividness of religious writings from the Counter Reformation. They are upsetting, beautiful, exhilarating and repulsive - exactly like the medieval and baroque imagery that inspired them.

Elsewhere in the show, Hirst continues his lifelong obsession with good and evil with a gallery hung with canvases covered in dead flies, each titled after a major cause of death (Smallpox, Aids, Cholera). The result is the most repellent room in England - a spirit-lowering, black, smelly mess. But then, if you are going to make a piece about pestilence, it should be repellent.

The one abject failure in the show is the giant painted bronze statue in the form of a 1950s collection box, a little girl with a callipered leg. Standing opposite the gallery in Hoxton Square, she's a jolly enough addition to the neighbourhood, but as a work of art she has none of the conceptual resonance or visual power of Hirst's earlier monumental figure, Hymn. Still, I shall pray daily for Hirst's conversion, in the hope that his next show at White Cube will be devoted to the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo

    Artintern