Damien Hirst: Tate Modern Exhibition Review


Damien Hirst. Merely uttering the words evokes a controversial debate in and out of the art world.


Taking the piss?


Emperor’s-new-clothes-style trickster?

All of the above?

Whatever you decide, his latest exhibition in London’s Tate Modern has drawn a huge audience (partially thanks to its media coverage) and is undeniably the biggest art event of the year. His pieces are instantly recognisable and spark a curiosity in almost everyone, intrigue is a powerful magnet and Hirst helps answer those all important questions in life, such as: “what does a cow sawn in half look like?” or “what do 6 billion dead flies pilled up in a big circle look like?”

In and Out of Love: Butterfly Room 1

But seriously, if you gander beyond the speculation on motivation and dive into the little booklet you’re given on the door (and manage to read it with everything else going on in the gallery) you begin to realise that perhaps there IS something deeper than the initial shock value. With most of his pieces ‘the themes of life and death as well as beauty and horror are highlighted’ and the impact of In and Out of Love particularly made me consider my own mortality. That may sound a little over-dramatic, but ‘traditional’ art struggles to achieve such a feeling of life and death as the two rooms of In and Out of Love.You can’t help but feel part of natures big cycle as you enter the butterfly room and physically watch the lives of these large insects play out for your amusement: some are hatching, others fluttering about and in the second room you’re presented with dead versions of the same butterflies glued to painted canvases.

In and Out of Love: Butterfly Room 2

In a space of 5 minutes (and with a lot of sweat from the room radiators and humidifier) you see something’s birth, life and death play out all in one go. It’s hard not to feel both really big and God like as we leave their life’s prison; but also very insignificant and put in our place as we realise our part in nature. This indie-hipster thought almost carried me away to some profound and ironic place when I was happily brought back to the tourist attraction that is the exhibit, as one brave butterfly decided to make a break for it into the adjacent exhibition (a giant pretend pharmacy), followed closely by two burly bouncers bending over and clumsily trying to grab it, of course looking totally ridiculous in the process.

Mother and Child Divided

So back to life’s big questions: Mother and child, Divided, I can say without a hint of sarcasm is the most interesting a dead cow is ever going to be! In a chilling twist to the usual roped off malarkey of galleries you could walk through the cow, between the two halves and fully appreciate the perfectly preserved interior as well as the exterior up close. Beef was not the only dish on the formaldehyde menu as two cow’s heads, a black sheep and a spectacular landing dove were also part of the exhibition.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living…SHARK!

Most iconic of all and arguably the most famous Hirst piece was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, otherwise known as the enormous tiger shark that dominated the main room of the exhibition. Hirst designed the work so you could stand at the end of the tank and feel like you were inside, floating in front of the gaping jaws. He wanted to instill primal fear into the onlookers and, although slightly wrinkled and dead, looking into the mouth of such a well known man-eater is a sight usually reserved for the unluckiest swimmer! Definitely worth seeing!

“I thought, well, if I can get one in a big enough space, actually in liquid, big enough to frighten you, that you feel you’re in there with it, feel that it could eat you, it would work”, Damien Hirst.


Damien Hirst’s other controversial work, his spot paintings, controversial because he had other people paint them for him, were everywhere. Compared to the rest of the exhibition, dots on a wall wasn’t particularly exciting and often got overlooked as wallpaper, especially when placed next to A Thousand Years.

A Thousand Years

Another big metal and glass box: in one half the maggots hatch and fly about and in the second box they have a cows severed head to feast on with unlucky one’s getting caught by the grimly named ‘insect-o-cutor’. Perhaps it was the thousands of dead flies, perhaps it was the grotesque head with blood oozing across the floor or even the smell, which was allowed to waft out through a vent in the side of the exhibit, but this was by far the most disgusting of the pieces. Pretty much the same ideas of life and death as              the butterflies it was amazing how such similar pieces could get such different reactions from the public.

For the Love of God

Finally, the most expensive piece in the Tate, perhaps ever, the diamond skull, For the Love of God, was breathtaking. With a raw materials cost of 14 million and an auction price of 50 million pounds it’s no wonder that this piece (which was the only free part of the exhibition to view) was locked down in a giant black bunker with 3 visible bouncers! After a fairly lengthy queue we finally got in and were dazzled by the radiance of the 8,601 flawless pavé-laid diamonds. A halo of spotlights cast their glance down onto the skull so that every tiny crystal glimmered like a star. Truly a magpie’s dream!


Whether you’re a big art lover, or even just a sightseer this exhibition is so diverse it has something for everyone. If you want to be wowed or see the hype for yourself it runs all summer from 4th April- 9 September for £14 and less for students.



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