A father led his infant daughter up to Damien Hirst’s Away From The Flock, made in 1994, and pointed at it. “What do you say when you see a sheep? Baaaa!”
The little girl didn’t copy him. She was staring into the case at the animal in front of her. I could see her face through the clear formaldehyde. Her eyes were wide and her mouth half open, and her hand reached out. All her attention was on the lamb in front of her. It was real, she could see that, but it didn’t move or make any sound. Live lambs are rarely still or silent and now her father was asking her to say baaa to something that was never going to baaa back at her. Ever. She was not afraid or moved, she just didn’t know what to make of it. It was frozen between life and death, alone in its own space. It looked alive, but it wasn’t. She had never seen anything like it before.
I spent a long time looking at the lamb, and I kept going back to it as I walked around the exhibition of Hirst’s work at Leeds Art Gallery, maybe because I spent a long time living up in sheep country among sheep and lambs. Their voices and calls were the background noise to my day from the hills and fields surrounding the school where I taught. Farmers speak of each years lambs as a “crop” and they grow all too quickly and disappear off to slaughter unless they are lucky and are added to the flock. This one has achieved its own empty kind of immortality in its box, it has been picked out and remembered, but what use is that to it? It is now simply a ghost of what was once there, a ghost recreated as a hyper real facsimile of what it once was. Everything that once made the lamb is still perfectly in place. Only the spark of life, the light in its eyes is gone. The very thing that really made the lamb into a lamb has disappeared, never to return. You can project a sense of poignancy onto the desperately sad face, tilted upwards as it runs nowhere, but you are kidding yourself. Dead is dead and Hirst allows you no escape. As for any religious overtones, lamb of God for instance, or a congregation of worshippers as a flock needing to be led, I have a feeling that this lamb is saying that you may well be kidding yourself about that too. Dead is still dead. It made me feel enormous pity for the animal and for all of us. I have no idea what I felt like saying when I looked at that lamb, but it certainly wasn’t baaaa.
There is no avoiding the subject of death in the rest of the exhibition either. Hirst grins out like the joker in Batman from a photograph, his face right next to a large jowly dead human head which looks disconcertingly like Alfred Hitchcock, a beautiful Carrera marble sculpture of an angel ( The Anatomy of an Angel, 2008) is partially dissected to show bones, muscle and blood vessels as well as a smooth outer shell of beauty, and there are cabinets full of anatomical models, and pharmaceutical tables and references throughout. In Mantra (2007) the iridescent wings of butterflies have been taken and locked into shapes and patterns to form a new kind of beauty in death. They are carefully positioned and the colours have been chosen so that from a distance they seem to be lit from the centre. The Victorians would have been surprised by what Hirst does but they were a society who made a flamboyant culture out of death and I think that they might have understood it, perhaps better than today’s society does.
A whole room at the gallery has been made into an installation which “represents an echo” of the restaurant Pharmacy which was open from 1998-2003, completely designed and decorated by Hirst. Diners who were looking for comfort and ease on a night out were reminded that they were merely flesh and blood and that the food which they were eating was a mixture of chemical components keeping them alive, bringing them a degree of discomfort and disorientation along with their meal.
All of these exhibits seem to laugh in the face of the inevitable end which we will all come to. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. The fact that people can, and do continue to live and enjoy life in the face of this inevitable fact is just one of the amazing things about the human spirit and there is a bleak pleasure in celebrating this along with Hirst.
When I left the exhibition I walked over into the Artspace area of the museum. There were cards displayed on a stand where people had answered the question “What makes an artist famous.” Naturally many of the answers related directly to Damien Hirst. Most of the people writing would have just seen his work, and anyway Hirst is one of the most famous artists in Britain, he is one of only a few living artists who you can rely on most people to have something to say about, even if you have to say “pickled shark” first. Many of the comments were quite wry and cynical. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind that. Some of the answers were quite telling:
“Bored rich people.”
“Putting a sheep in a box.”
Among these rather flip responses there was one which struck home with me. Whoever wrote it had hit on something important about Art and they had almost got Hirst right.
“Showing people things that they haven’t understood.”
What Hirst does is confront people with something that they are sometimes too afraid to understand and he does it with the delight of a fairground barker. He shows people death staring them right in the face and they would rather not think about it. That’s why some of them look at his work and still don’t. On the other hand some would say that the joker who grins out from the photo with the dead head is just taking us all for a ride…………… but even if he is- it’s still Art.
Leeds Art Gallery is showing this small exhibition of Damien Hirst’s work thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Anthony d’Offay who donated his collection of over 1000 works to Tate and National Galleries of Scotland in 2008. This bequest is one of the largest ever given to a British museum and it forms the basis of Artist Rooms a selection of touring small shows of a variety of work, each by a single artist. I am just one of many who should be grateful to him.