DAMIEN HIRSTThe Judged, 2012, glass, steel and entomological specimens,183.4 × 275.5 × 13.2 cm. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong.

DAMIEN HIRST, installation view of “Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2013. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. Photo by Vincent Tsang. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

DAMIEN HIRST, installation view of “Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2013. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. Photo by Vincent Tsang. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

DAMIEN HIRST, installation view of “Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts” at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2013. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. Photo by Vincent Tsang. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

DAMIEN HIRSTSupreme Being, 2012, scalpel blades and household gloss on canvas, 182.9 × 121.9 cm. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts

Damien Hirst

White Cube Hong Kong
Hong Kong UK

“I’d love a simple world to exist, but unfortunately it doesn’t.”

— Damien Hirst, in an interview with Tim Marlow, February, 2013

There’s not much more to be said about Damien Hirst that hasn’t been said already. He’s the most opportunistic artist of the early 21st century, ranking far ahead of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami in terms of public notoriety in the reigning triumvirate of post-Warholian cynics, the generation that, unfortunately, took the-ever-ironic Andy quite literally about the industrial production of art—much to the delight of the captains of global empires who can afford to purchase their works. In Hirst’s case, the former London art school enfant terrible has evolved over the course of his career into a mainstream designer of a merchandise line that now resembles a luxury brand—say, Patek Phillipe watches or Bentley automobiles—rather than an artistic oeuvre. That may be to Hirst’s credit, as the central ambition behind his entire enterprise could be characterized as a kind of highly lucrative Meta-Pop Art, where the ironic, critical tropes of Postmodernism (both visual and rhetorical) are co-opted and redeployed in flashy product development. The man who has created more than 1,400 “dot” paintings and a skull encrusted with GBP 12 million worth of diamonds—offered for a substantial, well-publicized mark-up at GBP 50 million—could hardly dispute this in good conscience.

Those in cultural industries tend to romanticize the mode of productions that are currently vanishing from the rest of the world. Think of John Ruskin’s and William Morris’s Victorian-era admiration for the artisanal, or the midcentury critic Harold Rosenberg’s validation of the pioneering, solitary laborer. So why wouldn’t some viewers (particularly those toiling in executive suites) find “meaning” or “beauty” in the products cranked out by the 100-plus employees at the factory of Hirst’s company, Science Ltd.? After all, the artist himself is of the generation that saw Britain de-industrialized to appease the City of London’s favored interest in international finance. It is perhaps then no surprise that White Cube brought Hirst’s work to Hong Kong. Though it is a city that has largely lost its garment-manufacturing industry, it still thrives on banking and finance, while relying on the service economy to replicate (albeit with different populations) the master-servant dynamic of its colonial eras.

In short, the scene here was just right. Hong Kong’s branch of White Cube is located on 6,000-square feet of the ground and first floors of the Robert AM Stern-designed 50 Connaught Road. The air is laced with caffeine, courtesy of the neighboring Starbucks. The welcoming is stellar, too: a burly security guard barking no photos. (So much for plans to replicate these luxury items across the Chinese border in Dafen.) The ambience is perfectly clinical, and not just because of the floating white walls, ersatz-industrial concrete floor and expunging of all traces of indigenous Hong Kong from this cultural cleanroom. In the universe of Damien Hirst, the natural world is long dead and (when not rotting) preserved and entombed in tanks, vitrines or cabinets.

The aura of sterility and confinement pervades even the trite yet bombastic sentiments that accompany Hirst’s objects. His output addresses “profound and fundamental questions about existence” and “such thematic dualities as life and death, desire and fear, beauty and horror”; the bugs and butterflies (here glued to canvases in radiating patterns or shelved on mirrored cabinets) purportedly serve to “embody the fragility of life”; the scalpel paintings are works “whose beauty masked the inescapable futility of medicine in the face of our own morality.”

Sometimes, in these press releases, it seems as if Hirst and his coterie of promoters actually believe he is tackling the weighty themes of Enlightenment-era humanism, and not merely deploying them (in the form of clichés) as commercial taglines. Is the immediate recourse to grandiose terms—accessed via references to existing artistic tropes, drawn from Pop to Arte Povera and Minimalism—simply a diversion around the works’ fundamental vacuity? How else to interpret titles such as Heaven, Supreme Being, The Judged?

No matter. There were two floors of easy, consumer-friendly viewing. Preserved bugs (of all shapes, sizes and colors, in radiating patterns, a supposed Victorian reference) symbolize death in general. Scalpel blades (in more varieties than you’ve ever seen, unless you are a surgeon or a serial remover of butterfly wings) symbolize death in general. Enormous medicine cabinets (here, shiny) symbolize death in general. Big spiders are scary-looking, as are scalpels (which, according to Hirst, “make you think about the end and the fragility of your flesh”), but beautiful when arranged en masse in a dizzying pattern. Bright colors are also beautiful.

Hirst’s ongoing line of “Entomology” works (2009– ) comes in two varieties: “Paintings” (“about surface, and paint as well,” Hirst says) and “Cabinets” (“about natural history”). They are simple constructions: an assortment of iridescent, colorful (dead) insects—spiders, butterflies and beetles—in rows, circles or complicated patterns. The surface of the paintings is offered in several colors, including white, gold, silver or natural Hammerite paint. These arrays look like mandalas (as the press release suggests) in the same way that a plastic maneki-neko figurine (the Japanese “beckoning cat”) looks like a classical Tibetan bronze.

While the “Scalpel Paintings” hold your attention for a moment or two longer—perhaps because they still seem to be in the trial phase, with symmetrical patterning and something almost like imagery—the “Color Charts” are truly a nadir in the history of paint on canvas. Hirst seems to think that these works actually, as he says, “terrify” people. Talking about the color chart paintings in a video interview with Tim Marlow, he explains:

“Something very comforting in the real world can become a terrifying work of art. Like a color chart. That’s really comforting. That means that everything I know can be logically understood. Which is very comforting. But when you make that into a great big painting, people go, ‘Is that all there is?’ And it becomes a terrifying work of art. Because you are like ‘Why is that art?’ Because what’s comforting in art is a faithful representation of the real world. So once you take an object from the real world and make it [into art], you go ‘Why?’ The big question of ‘Why?’ horrifies people. It upsets people. ‘Why would you do that?’”

After more than 60 years of painters making abstractions based on found imagery (including color charts, most famously by Gerhard Richter), what is infuriating is the pretense that Damien Hirst’s versions are at all innovative or expansive about the notion or idea of art. In fact, he is the one who is stuck on a certain idea of art that he then believes—quite wrongly—he is transgressing. Taking an object from the real world and turning it into art is an idea more than 100 years old, and there is a very well-known term for what Duchamp did first. So while Hirst appears to believe his works confront taboo topics and the weighty, unmentionable subjects such as death, the inevitability he seems to be avoiding is called “the readymade.”  

This is not a universe of one—and countless other artists in the last century (and arguably almost every artist working today, beginning at university age) have addressed this notion, both out of necessity and with genuine consideration. In that regard, Hirst is absolutely wrong about what the fundamental questions are. Hirst is right about one thing, however, which is that the simple world does not exist. Not in London, not in Hong Kong and not in art. Why then are his artworks so undemanding and thus so utterly unrewarding to any viewer with even a slight conception of the world’s complexity?