Damien Hirst is bringing the concept of the spiritual to a place where people don’t expect to encounter it. A recent visit to the Tate Modern exhibition showing many of Hirst’s masterpieces confirmed how important religion is to his art.
Photo: © Tate, London 2012
I regularly skim over articles that argue there is no correlation between religious art and faith. Our society is trying desperately to secularise art, as it is all elements of society. Yet, here is the most successful, recognised and talked-about living British artist presenting an exhibition in which almost all the works declare references to a god, notably the Christian God.
As an exhibition documenting Hirst's life work it proves that God, or more broadly speaking religion, has been a life-long concern of the artist. The exhibition booklet recalls the four most important things in life according to Damien: science, art, love and religion. This quote was to compliment the content of a room in which science – supposedly the antithesis of religion – is celebrated as the dominant of the four components: glass cabinets of operating tools, and plastic models of the body are presented in front of graph paper walls. Yet, meters away in the next room was the profoundly beautiful butterfly altarpieces – the most glorious tribute to nature's design I have seen in art.
The most dramatic of these was a triplet of arched canvases, hung like three stain glass windows in a grand Romanesque cathedral. On top of a coat of royal red paint, was stuck brilliant brightly coloured breathless butterflies, so they appear like polychrome glass.
Beauty brings us closer to God, because He is the perfect image of beauty, right? And heaven, full of the presence of God and his goodness without exception, is the most beautiful place imaginable.
Butterflies symbolise the resurrection, because they are like a resurrection body – once a larva, then transformed to a pupa before a butterfly. Hirst was not dumb to this artistic iconography. Nor, was he dumb to the fact that the decoration scheme for God's dwelling place was considered under the pretence that it is an elaborate form of worship, in which no material expense or luxury should be spared. Which did of course include commissioning the latest Great of the art world. (Sly Hirst, very sly...it's certainly not like the artist to turn down an opportunity for some tongue in cheek.) "The church was very clever" he said, "It used everything available to make men believe." Are we still that resourceful I wonder? (Maybe that's an aside...)
Photo: © Tate, London 2012
If 'Mother and Child Divided', 1993 [pictured above], is as Hirst suggests "alluding to Christian iconography," it is the most out-of-the-box (pun intended), and poignant re-invention of one aspect of The Passion, Mary weeping over her son's death, I've ever seen. 'Away from the Flock' (1994), also a deceased farmyard animal caught-in-the-headlights in a glass vitrine – this time a sheep – draws strong parallels to one of my favourite paintings 'Our English Coasts' by William Holman Hunt [below]. Not strictly a sacred painting, it is only made so by its religious imagery. On the cliffs of Hastings, Sussex, one lost sheep is caught in the brambles dangerously close to the edge. Hunt reminds us that the good Shepherd, Christ, rescued the one small and insignificant sheep that had strayed rather than turning his attention to the ones, which remained close. Damien's lost sheep could be looking up in despair to God, or in ecstasy. I couldn't help seeing hinds of 'The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa' (as by Bellini) in it.
Photo: © Tate, London 2012
The most prominent theme in the exhibition is death, which is of course intrinsically related to God, because when we consider death we wonder what happens when we cease to exist. (Our own selves often being our whole conception of life, as Hirst realises in the title of the shark instillation: 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living', 1991.) Who then is in control when we are not there to be? People believe in God because they want to keep on living, because of a fear of death (which Hirst so aptly draws our attention to with the shark, which he sees as an opportunity for viewers to face their irrational fears about death) or at least because they don't want to suffer: because of a fear of pain.
Maybe this is why so much of his works in the exhibition have religious undertones – you cannot consider death, as Hirst so regularly does (dead cows, sharks, sheep [black and white], butterflies, other flies, a bird that is actually seen in flight, and an aquarium worth of fish), without considering God. Could everybody be searching?
Of the four things most important to life, Damien unsurprisingly places his highest trust in art. He describes himself as holding a religious belief in art, and from what I gathered from the show from a young age felt disappointed that his Mum would trust modern medicine (science), but not art. How then, in the eyes of Damien Hirst, can art be paralleled to religion?
Art is meaningful. This is what Hirst best encapsulated in his art. This is conceptual art. I overheard a woman say, in front of the big shark (1991), "I've got more respect for him now that I can see what he meant by them". She, was evidently wowed that someone could conceive of the shark as having meaning outside of the basic factors of its physical identity, and evidently – like so many – was too caught up in the consideration of the subject matter itself "why is a shark allowed to be in an art gallery as though art", to look beyond its materiality, to its ideas...
You see, the reality is that many of these works do not gain their depth from the art object itself. It is the symbolism lavished upon it, the associations empowered within it, when the artist awards his work a title. For it's always the title that alludes to the work's meaning. And them, is revealed a pundit.
Damien: he's not the devil, so dare to get dug in.
The Damien Hirst retrospective opened on Wednesday at the Tate, and is on until 9 September. I would strongly advise booking (tickets are £14), and expect to queue to get into the live butterfly room, and to see For The Love of God (current Turbine Hall exhibition – free to enter.)
This article first appeared on Godculture, an online magazine that showcases Christianity in modern culture.
May 24th, 2012 - Posted & Written by God Culture