Brooding, silent, inert, the works in this exhibition are far beyond death, having passed through rigor mortis, decomposition and mumification to emerge on the other side as totems to an artist’s fascination with the grim and inescapable fact of mortality. More of the same, you might say. And how wrong you would be. For the second, spectacular instalment of his year-long takeover of Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery, Damien Hirst gets serious with this simple, stark and extraordinarily grim collection of gods, monsters, statues, skeletons, sarcophaguses, and flies, oh so many flies.
The gallery walls are suffocated by Hirst’s trademark kaleidoscope wallpaper, but not the one with the light blue butterflies or the one with the pink butterflies – every wall in the gallery is floor to ceiling black butterflies. All the bronze cast sculptures are black and they sit on black plinths. The fly paintings are deep, thick black masses of black flies. Never before has a grey concrete floor acted as such a welcome accent colour. The mood is immaculately sombre, even grim. It feels like a mausoleum or a tomb, not unlike the supernaturally serene chamber deep inside the Great Pyramid of Giza – a step back in time into an ancient, unimaginable world, cool, dim, still with artificial light on black, grim death everywhere you turn.
The Fly Paintings, the idea of which seems innocuous enough, are actually quite provocative once you get up close and contemplate these blocks of horror. Ranging in size from tiny to huge, they are sublime in the Kantian sense, for there is an awe and a sickening wonder at the number of flies that must be mummified in resin to make it protrude an inch from the surface of the canvas. Some of canvases, inexplicably, have a perfectly circular hole in the middle, which is reminiscent of the futile cubes from In and Out of Love (1991), where the hole acts as a portal, like death itself, to the unknown. It’s funny that you don’t think much of flies until they are the victims of genocide.
The Relics are a mixed bag. The enormous sarcophagus, its lid cast aside, containing the remains of its occupant, the medusa heads, more than life-size statues of god-like figures and oceanic or volcanic rocks are convincing simulations of the kind of archaeological loot you might find in the British Museum. The bulbous foetus, prone on the floor, the anatomical skeleton-ghosts and the pigs miss the mark slightly because they are, against all odds, unbelievable; they fracture the conceit of relics in the museum. Nonetheless, there is a moodiness, a stillness, a contemplative atmosphere that Hirst has scarcely managed to recapture at this scale since the early Medicine Cabinets.
This is not an exhibition which you mosey around, pondering each object, studying the details, looking up close and far away; it is more an atmosphere which you absorb, a collection of monuments that you find yourself at one with, and an experience that washes over and sloshes around you, like the incoming tide of the cool green sea. It is certainly Hirst’s best show in a commercial gallery in London since ‘Beyond Belief’ (2008) and likely a highlight in a year where art and life have started and stopped to the point of despair. However, it is worth bearing in mind that, with ‘End of a Century’ at Newport Street Gallery and the takeover at Gagosian, the one light in all the darkness of 2021 is that there will be a Hirst show somewhere in London every single day of the year. That’s 365 days of pristinely decorated death.
Damien Hirst: Relics and Fly Paintings Gagosian Britannia Street, London, through to August