In 1996, Damien Hirst told David Bowie at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, “Museums are for dead artists. I’d never show my work in the Tate. You’d never get me in that place.” On April 4th, Hirst’s mid-career retrospective show opened at the Tate. People change. Unfortunately for Hirst, his work has not.
This current exhibition is built upon variations of repetition: repetition of visual aesthetic, repetition of themes. We see flies shifts towards butterflies, medicine cabinets to pharmacies, and animal after animal in vitrine, all the while each piece attempts to deal with mortality as lifelessness or death. This proliferation of aesthetic and theme could at best be construed to be self-parody, Hirst admitting that maybe Lucian Freud was right when he said, “I think you started with the final act, my dear,” after first seeing the decomposing cow’s head of A Thousand Years.
In actuality, this repetition is a mode of production. What we are looking at is less of an oeuvre, and more of art as commercial good and Hirst’s role in the business of being an artist. The argument could be made that this is exactly what Hirst wants: to have his work become a critique of the current art market. The issue here is that Hirst no longer exists in the art market, but in the consumption goods market. He produces the works, sets the price and sells them: an avant garde Thomas Kinkade. Tracing Hirst’s annual sales at auction via Artnet finds that the Hirst bubble burst in September of 2008 and since then his work has become something to consume, and not something that can be easily sold within the art market.
Hirst survives on his repetitive allegories, and in some ways might be trapped within the market he has created and sustained for himself as evidenced by the complete lack of his ill received blue paintings from the 2009 Wallace Collection show at the Tate. Ultimately, we are left with an artist who started his career at the end and has had nowhere else to go since.