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Skulls, sharks and polka dots in Damien Hirst show

By Jill Lawless
Associated Press / April 2, 2012
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LONDON—There are pickled sharks and polka dots, cigarette butts, flies and butterflies.

Visitors are likely to be struck by the variety of work in a new show devoted to the career of Brit Art bad-boy Damien Hirst -- and by its similarity. The 14 rooms are full of splashes of vibrant color, and forceful reminders of death.

Viewers may conclude that Hirst -- one of Britain's best-known, and richest, living artists -- is a major creative force who grapples with life's big issues. Or they may decide he is a canny charlatan whose real genius is for self-promotion.

Hirst has always divided opinion, and the debate has been reignited by his first major British retrospective, which opens Wednesday at London's Tate Modern. Art critic Julian Spalding recently called Hirst's creations "worthless as works of art" and advised anyone who owns them to sell now, before the artificially inflated market collapses.

Hirst, 46, says artists have to expect that kind of criticism, and it doesn't bother him.

"People don't like contemporary art," Hirst said Monday as reporters swarmed over the exhibition like -- well, like flies over a cow's head in a Damien Hirst installation.

"You get cab drivers and stuff who come up to me and they go, 'What you do is not art, mate. And you think (it's) brilliant, that they can have that view.

"I'm sure there were people around when they were doing it in the caves, going 'I like your cave, but I hate that crap you've got on the walls."

Hirst has attracted both headlines and sky-high prices since he burst onto the scene more than 20 years ago as part of an attention-grabbing group of "Young British Artists." With fellow provocateurs such as Tracey Emin, he became a celebrity -- and a fixture on the London nightlife scene -- during the "Cool Britannia" years of the 1990s.

His exhibitions and installations were usually hard to ignore. One of his first solo shows included white canvasses covered with butterfly pupae, which hatched to let the insects fly around the room. That is recreated in one of the new exhibitions' most striking rooms, a humid white space filled with fluttering color. The insects occasionally escape and alight on visitors in other parts of the gallery.

More usually, the creatures featured in Hirst's work are dead. There are sharks preserved in formaldehyde, bisected and embalmed cows, and "A Thousand Years" -- a rotting cow's head in a pool of blood, abuzz with maggots and flies.

Despite the presence of so much death, Hirst -- who has curtailed his partying, quit drinking and now divides his time between London and the English countryside -- says he finds the show cheerful.

"It seems more about life than death to me," he said. "The fly piece is pretty dark and it does grab you, but it seems isolated. A lot of the other works are optimistic, hopeful and fun. Full of beans."

It is, often, exuberantly colorful. There is a selection of the multicolored spot paintings that Hirst -- with the help of assistants -- has produced in their hundreds, and huge canvasses covered in stained-glass style images made from butterflies (dead this time).

There's also row upon row of another Hirst signature -- items from pill bottles, to surgical tools, to cigarette butts arranged in glass display cases.

Hirst's gaudiest creation, a human skull encrusted with more than 8,000 diamonds, gets a room of its own in Tate's vast Turbine Hall.

The Tate Modern show is Hirst's first major U.K. retrospective. He said he resisted the idea of a career overview for years.

"I think I've been avoiding it because I was a bit scared," he said. "There is a huge feeling of mortality associated with it, so you have trepidation thinking about it."

He was worried the art might not hold up well with the passage of time, but says he has been pleasantly surprised.

"When I look back at myself in videos I'm wearing the most awful clothes, and you just think, 'Jesus Christ, what was I thinking? I thought I was cool at the time.' And I suppose you have the fear the art's going to do that," he said. "But to me it doesn't look like that. Not yet, anyway.

"I think it all looks fresh and new. ... I can be proud of it all. It feels strong, it feels sober, it feels exciting. I saw little kids running around yesterday and they were going 'Wow!'"

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Some critics, like Spalding, see Hirst as a remnant of a faintly distasteful pre-recessionary age, more concerned with money than with art.

That view is helped by an accident of timing.

In 2008, a Sotheby's auction of Hirst's work netted almost $200 million, a record for a living artist. The sale began on Sept. 15, 2008 -- the day Lehman Brothers bank collapsed and the global economy tipped into crisis. That coincidence has made the auction seem like the end of a long economic, and art market, boom.

Tate curator Ann Gallagher said she hopes the exhibition will give people a chance to look at Hirst's work afresh. She said she hopes visitors "will walk into the exhibition without any preconceptions -- just look at the work for what it is and make their minds up."

And Hirst, having looked back to help assemble the current show, says he is once again focused on making new work.

"As an artist, I definitely think the work in the future is going to be a lot better than any of the work in the past," he said. "You have to think that way, or you wouldn't do it."


Jill Lawless can be reached at:

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