It’s not every day you wander through an art exhibition covered in living butterflies.
FashionBite enjoyed an experience like no other this week upon visiting Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Tate Modern, where he is now using one of the earth’s most beautiful creatures to illustrate the fragility of life and society’s reluctance to confront death.
The English sculptor, installation artist, painter and printmaker has long grappled with themes of mortality, sickness and decay in his work, often presenting the organic purity found within nature and love as the antidote to the more depressing realities of our existence.
Now he’s settled on using the elusive, unique creatures to encapsulate the meaning of his work in his latest exhibition’s piece de resistance, inviting visitors to actively observe and engage with the animal’s life cycle, and therefore their own.
Hirst’s thought process becomes clear upon entering the exhibition’s butterfly room, which is hot, humid and dominated by fluttering bursts of colour as the butterflies explore. Delicate pupa cover the walls as caterpillars crawl along the surfaces, immediately reminding us that the stunning insects circling our heads were once something else. Dead butterflies sit frozen on leaves or sadly in quiet corners of the space, effortlessly signifying the inevitable transience of life.
When paired with the works seen earlier, this awe-inspiring finale quite obviously seeks to highlight the naivety of the human race concerning the subject of death. Our belief is that life is ours to control, that we can prolong it and gain control of the factors that threaten to manipulate it, by way of modern science and medicine. Hirst fights to remind us that life is as fragile as it has ever been, and our dependence on arguably nonsensical belief systems and the ‘miracle’ of modern medicine are ultimately arbitrary.
Dead animals are frequently used in Hirst’s installations, and once again this exhibition forces viewers to confront the unsavoury details of death. Containers such as aquariums and vitrines are used as devices to impose control on the brittle subject-matter contained within them and as barriers between the viewer and the viewed.
A cow, a dove, a sheep and a shark are all preserved as in life, but at the same time are emphatically dead, with their entrails and flesh exposed. FashionBite can confirm that the now infamous vitrines are as visually arresting up close as they proved to be when they first attracted media attention. The sheer scale of a once ferocious shark reduced to eerie stillness is enough to silence visitors as they drink in the awesome spectacle that dominates the exhibition.
Hirst’s paintings provide a stark foil to his sculptural work, but allude to similar themes of death and pharmaceutical antidotes. The ‘spot’ paintings are named after medical stimulants and narcotics, the chemical enhancers of human emotion, but are reminiscent of opaque, unemotional Minimalist paintings.
Cabinets filled with medical aids and prescription drugs line the walls of some rooms, highlighting our dependence on medicine to numb pain and fix our problems. This causes us to experience an ever-increasing sense of detachment from our psyches, as it becomes the norm to place our hopes for a sense of well-being in the hands of someone else entirely.
Damien Hirst often insists on presenting himself as a fraud who is somehow tricking the public into enjoying his work, and after viewing this retrospective, we can’t understand why. Hirst is tackling huge ideas with a simplicity that provokes viewers to draw their own conclusions to questions no one can possibly answer – and if that’s not the point of art, then what is?