I must admit that I was in two minds about seeing the Hirst exhibition, and after a long drive and walk through the tourist throng I was hoping for something new and surprising. But as I passed through the show I just couldn’t get a ker-ching sound from my mind which seemed to accompany the check list of shark, polka dots, other shark, pill cabinet, spinning paint disc, half a cow etc. And like a walk round stalls at a local funfair, although I didn’t come away with a furry gonk I had the feeling that I’d eaten just a little too much candy floss. The exhibition hadn’t gone any deeper to tell me something new about Hirst and didn’t go much further than the works that I’d already seen in other galleries.
A line of early wall mounted painted pots and pans (8 pans – 1987) did help to make a connection to the later spot paintings. But I found the early pots far more interesting than the later clinical formations of controlled colour. Hirst’s butterfly wing stained glass windows were impressive, creating rich kaleidoscopic patterns but then butterflies are beautiful and fascinating, stained glass too and yes, put together they make… a clever pattern using butterfly wings.
By the time I reached the turbine hall queue outside Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull For the Love of God I decided to move onto the other exhibition showing at that time.
As I sat in the upper café I found myself surrounded by giant, ketchup coloured polka dot balls, not Damien Hirst this time but just a part of 83 year old Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective for a career spanning 60 years. Focusing on the emergent moments of her defining works, the show charted her first paintings from post-war Japan, through to later sculptural pieces and her ongoing struggle with mental health. A difficult and traumatic upbringing in a patriarchal wartime Japan, and a promiscuous father led to a loathing of phallic symbols and the desire for a self-obliteration, later represented by covering herself and everything around her with her famous polka dots. Art appears to have been the therapy that has identified and delivered Kusama from her inner demons.
Early paintings were suggestive of strange, natural phenomena and baron landscapes, all painted with great attention to surface detail, a recurring theme in the artist’s vocabulary. A move to the US in the mid 60s heralded a move into larger, sculptural works and immersive installations. The stunning Infinity Net Paintings show an almost obsessive mark making of repeat semi-circular shapes on tonal backgrounds. The effect is an hypnotic mass of subtle points, reminiscent of a swarm of distant animals or billowing fields of wheat.
The Accumulation sculptural series of everyday objects and furniture covered in phalic shapes, growing like mushrooms over the surface, continue the artist’s fascination with obliteration. A single rowing boat covered in the phallic shapes like rampant sea anenomes sat in the centre of a room while the walls, floor and ceiling were covered in repeat black and white photocopies of the boat, apparently anticipating Andy Warhol’s Cow wallpaper by three years.
I’m Here, But Nothing, an installation of a furnished living room with every inch covered in luminous dots bathed in UV light, gave an unsettling sensation of the breaking up of everyday familiar objects. Moving on into the Infinity Mirrored Room Filled with the Brilliance of Life seemed to complete Kusama’s wish for obliteration as out of the darkened space, polka dots appear as luminous balls of light or stars that multiply exponentially into Infinite space, creating a magical effect as the viewer completely suspends the sense of themselves and considers the infinite.
Next to Kusama, Hirst’s work appeared gimmicky and straight off the production line. Rather than from an inner compulsion revealing hidden depths, Hirst’s creations are great stand-alone statements to grace the foyer of any large corporation, but won’t be attracting me back to a gallery any time soon.
The Kusama exhibition has moved to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
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