Damien Hirst has begun a year-long “takeover” of the echoing concrete-floored spaces of Gagosian Britannia Street. There’s even a readymade hashtag #HirstTakeover, like a cry for attention. I can’t see how a year-long exposure in a single commercial gallery can be good for any artist, but with Hirst showing something somewhere all the time anyway, I don’t suppose it will stretch him too much. It is the staff at the London gallery I worry about. The works will be changing over the year, but no details are available.
The works filling the gallery presently come under the rubric of Fact Paintings and Fact Sculptures, and span more than 20 years between 1993 and the present. The earliest work is a cow’s head, with tongue lolling, bleeding quietly on the gallery floor. If it is blood (there might be health and safety issues if it is). More likely it is resin. Called Hot Love, I’m not sure about the head either, which doesn’t look pickled, and could, I suppose, be a simulacrum. Time will tell. We have a year, and any number of stand-in fresh bovine heads should the need arise.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The first gallery is done out as an old-fashioned jewellery shop, with old wood and glass cabinets filled with necklaces, brooches, rings and the like. Apparently they’re paste. It is all pearls before swine to me. Beside the cabinets stand a number of green wheelie bins and several bulging black rubbish sacks, which come in an edition of five, and are titled Idiot – not to be confused with Gavin Turk’s rubbish sacks, made from painted bronze, from 2008. The titles of these incongruous arrangements of cased jewellery, bins and bags are dispiriting, and include Rich Cunt, Deluded Rich Wanker and Public School Tosser.
Moving along, a functional sanitising station stands in the corner, with enough bottles of sanitiser to cleanse the entire art world, and a pair of scissors should you need a haircut, or worse. Given the self-parodic title of Remedies Against the Great Infection (edition of three, plus two artists’ proofs), this is a rare Hirst outing into Arte Útil, or useful art. Later, we come to a fully-stocked Coke vending machine, indistinguishable from the real thing. Dammit, it is the real thing (again, edition of three, no need to go overboard. You’re getting the drift, I’m sure.) Further editioned works include a giant, 6ft-tall stainless steel scalpel, a supermarket display of Persil washing powders, capsules and liquids – which feels like a rejoinder to Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners from the 1980s – and a racking shelf-unit filled with a desolate bunch of recycled cardboard boxes, various piles of card and paper and a copy of The Legacy of the Tek Sing: China’s Titanic – Its Tragedy and Its Treasure, leaning among the detritus and giving the work its title. Canadian artist Michael Snow once made a 45-minute audio inventory of the stuff piled up in his studio shelving unit, accompanied by a single, poor-quality projected slide as a visual accompaniment. I thought it was possibly the most tedious artwork I had ever seen. Compared to Hirst’s Tek Sing, Snow’s work is The Raft of the Medusa.
More excitingly, Hirst gives us Love Dies Fast (edition of three, obvs), a somewhat soiled chipboard and melamine kitchen sink unit (including alloy sink), ripped untimely from its original fitted kitchen, where, we presume, love has gone down the plughole. At least this has a kind of fierce abjection. Livening all this up, there are lots of photorealist paintings, large and small, depicting various butterflies at rest on plants, an atomic explosion, the artist dressed as a surgeon and morphed with an anatomical model, his newborn son Cyrus being cleaned, and a small painting of Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral on fire in 2019. Whether Hirst himself painted any of these or they were passed to studio assistants, I have no idea. I doubt the artist would have the time. For some reason I thought of Gerhard Richter’s small, adulterated and smeared-over photorealist rendition of the Twin Towers on fire on 9/11. Hirst cannot compete. He lacks the gravitas, even when he shows a cabinet filled with medical textbooks about oncology or a painting of his ex-Goldsmiths tutor Michael Craig-Martin posing with Hirst’s diamond skull, like a professorial Hamlet.
Hirst’s Fact paintings and sculptures might be a play on what’s real and what’s not, as befits our age, but a lot of the time they just look tired and lacking in any urgency. FACT.