Damien Hirst review – a breathtaking spectacle (with some art on show, too)
Source:The Guardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2018-03-26 Size:
In the servant’s hall, two dead hares in vitrines look perfectly at ……

Damien Hirst’s Sensation at Houghton Hall. Photographs Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

In the servant’s hall, two dead hares in vitrines look perfectly at home among the antler trophies. No, wait – they are at home. These are not artworks by Damien Hirst but a small part of the atmospheric decor of one of England’s most astounding stately homes.

It is just one more victory for Houghton Hall in its head-to-head aesthetic contest with our wealthiest living artist. Hirst plays the house and the house wins. However surreal and attention-grabbing his efforts, Houghton Hall consistently outdoes them, absorbing outsized anatomical statues into the dreamlike expanse of its landscaped estate, putting spot paintings in the shade with rococo tapestries and fairytale beds.

You can bet your life these beds, including the Green Velvet Bed with its soaring soft curtains and sumptuous silks, saw some hanky-panky in their day, for Houghton Hall dates from the age of William Hogarth’s rakes. The rake-in-chief, prime minister Robert Walpole, commissioned this Palladian pile. In the dazzling Stone Hall, a marble bust of Walpole makes him look like a virtuous Roman, defying satirists like Hogarth, who accused him of gross corruption.

Deliberately chaotic … Damien Hirst’s Colour Space paintings on display at at Houghton Hall.

Oh yes, and there are two glass tanks in the centre of this white cubic space, with noisy pumps blowing cascades of white ping-pong balls and larger, coloured balls smashing against the top of their enclosures only to fall back into central plugholes. These really are by Hirst. They show him at his best. The meaning of the balls, rushing up and falling down, is obvious and truthful. This is your life, a fragile ping-pong ball bounced hither and thither. Enjoy it while you can. For soon enough you will be like the skull in a nearby room, whose ping-pong ball eyes shoot out of their sockets with the aid of another air pump.

Fitting these eyes in the morning is quite spooky, confesses a Houghton Hall employee – for the house has its ghosts.

Of course it does. There was Horace Walpole, for instance, the prime minister’s son, who wrote the first Gothic horror novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. It starts with someone being crushed to death by a giant helmet. That would make a good installation here. Horace would surely have appreciated some of Hirst’s gorier sculptures, such as the silver statue of an eviscerated figure who lets it all hang out, bowels included, at the bottom of the Great Staircase with its eye-fooling murals by William Kent.

When I arrive, ahead of the annual public opening, snow half-covers the park and clutter belonging to the owners’ family still inhabits the lower floor. There are kids’ bikes propped against the grand front door. I stand next to a Hirst statue of an angel that has half its skin cut away to reveal its organs, chatting to Lord Cholmondeley about the house, which his family has owned since 1797. Its architecture was preserved as the Walpoles left it, he explains, because it stood empty for a century, never getting a Victorian makeover. Meanwhile, I stroke the head of his silent dog.

That’s the trouble Hirst – or any artist – has in putting on an exhibition in such a charismatic and history-laden house: its vivid atmosphere turns his works into mere decorations. As such they are fine. I don’t see how any critic manages to get into a lather about Hirst’s crimes against good taste. Good taste be damned, sir, as they said in Walpole’s day. Out on the lawn – the kind that recedes further than the naked eye can see – Hirst’s statues are a laugh. A flayed unicorn, a couple of colossal people with their skin off. All good fun. Yet it is Lord Cholmondeley’s herd of white deer that elicit gasps when they wander through the woods like a cloud.

As a sculptor, Hirst is entertaining even when he’s utterly kitsch. Unfortunately, he also shows paintings. At least these are not the castastrophic still lifes he daubs single-handed in his shed. Instead, his production line has churned out a new variant on the spot paintings he has been manufacturing since the 90s. Instead of being laid out in a neat grid like his earlier spotty abstractions, these new Colour Space paintings are deliberately chaotic, their circles of colour jostling each other like dust in a sunbeam.

This is why Hirst’s old ping-pong ball sculptures have been dug out of storage: the new spot paintings share their random Brownian motion effect of atoms bouncing about. A Hirst aficionado might even trace this sub-molecular buzzing to the clouds of black flies that raged around a rotting cow’s head before electrocuting themselves, in his macabre 1990 installation A Thousand Years.

But who cares? Whatever the ideas behind Hirst’s new abstract paintings, brilliant or inane, they have no life, no poetry, no holding power. In a foolhardy move, Houghton has temporarily removed every single oil painting from its state rooms and replaced them all with Hirst’s spots. They may as well have just got some paper from Paperchase and stuck that up with blu tack for all the impact these empty “paintings” make. They are literally nothing.

Myth (2010) and Legend (2011) at Houghton Hall.

No matter – there’s plenty to look at. My eyes wander to a tapestry of Bacchus and Ariadne, a ceiling painting of Endymion, the books in Walpole’s library … Hirst, intentionally or not (and I’m guessing not), directs attention brilliantly to the ornate riches of this 18th-century wonderland.

The deer are in their park, the grey dog keeps its vigil, and to cap it all I get to use Lord Cholmondeley’s gothic toilet, which has gold stars painted on a deep blue ceiling and two sketches by John Singer Sargent to look at while you’re on the loo. This is a fantastic place and Hirst provides decent summer entertainment for its visitors. He could make a good living as the art equivalent of a steam fair touring stately homes to amuse the summer crowds. I remember when he was an artist, granddad will reminisce, while the kids climb the anatomical figures.

[Editor] 姜鑫