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Damien Hirst
Miss Charity
Hoxton Square, London

Damien Hirst, "Romance in the Age of Uncertainty," 2003, installed at White Cube

Damien Hirst's "Cancer Chronicles" series, in "Romance in the Age of Uncertainty," 2003, installed at White Cube

The Suicide of Judas Iscariot

The Death of St. John

The Death of St. John (detail)

The Ascension of Jesus


Rapture (detail)

The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew

Adam and Eve
(Breaking Open the Head)

London Calling
by Joe La Placa

Damien Hirst, "Romance in the Age of Uncertainty," Sept. 10-Oct. 19, 2003, at White Cube, 48 Hoxton Square N1 6PB London.

Brit-Art prodigy Damien Hirst is once again news in England. His recently opened solo show at the White Cube, "Romance in the Age of Uncertainty," has inaugurated the London season with a bang.

Despite not exhibiting on his native turf for nearly a decade, Hirst remains England's most omnipresent artist. Since the mid-1990s, we've eaten in his restaurants Pharmacy and Quo Vadis. We've watched him belting out his football ditty Vindaloo on Top of the Pops. We've been whisked away by planes and boats branded with his signature spots. One of Hirst's spot paintings was recently dispatched to Mars on the Beagle II. An A-list celebrity, Hirst's contorted face (his signature pose) appears almost daily in British newspapers and magazines. He has been the subject of numerous TV and radio broadcasts. We've even seen the inside of his swank new summer house in Devon on Channel 4.

With all the exposure for everything except his art, Hirst's first solo show in London since 1995 has been much anticipated.

With Hirst reportedly delving deeply into his Catholic boyhood for inspiration, the sanctimonious theme of the show, coupled with a quiet but fervent desire to see all famous people fail, has one question on everyone's lips -- "Has Damien Hirst lost it?"

Since the exhibition opening on Sept. 10, Hirst has taken a bashing in the press, though it comes with a certain stench of envy in the air. The daily media hum has been bitchy: the show is boring; it looks like a stage set from Black Sabbath; it's lacking innovation; it offers no thrilling strides forward in quality, or new directions. What we have here is just more of the same old brutal spatters and slops from the perennial YBA bad boy.

The main problem is that most critics fail to pass the gauntlet of Hirst's gore factor. It's like running into a brick wall. They never see what's beyond.

Or could it be that the critics are resentful of Hirst's self-generated popularity and success as an artist? Hirst's work has an immediacy that impacts outside the limitations of esthetics. It doesn't need to be mediated by critics. The mass appeal is part of his message. Public taste shouldn't always be so looked down upon, or underestimated.

The supreme irony is Hirst's hospital-ward-meets-chainsaw esthetic; the slice and dice cow's heads and sheep suspended in vitrines full of formaldehyde; the Cornell-like medical cabinets representing the 12 apostles and Christ; the rosettes of butterfly wings -- will live long after the damning words of his detractors.

Over 2,000 people turned up, not to see a pop star, but to see the show and stalk the White Cube for a glimpse of the world's most popular living artist. Did Hirst turn up at the opening? Very stylishly, he didn't. Could this have been a strategy borrowed from Hirst's mysterious patron, Charles Saatchi, famous for his conspicuous absence from the public eye? Or perhaps, since Hirst's legendary days of drink and drugs are over, a way for St. Damien of Hoxton to avoid temptation?

The chaotic scene, spilling out into adjacent Hoxton Square, was reminiscent of the opening night of the Millennium Dome. Looming over the crowd was Miss Charity, Hirst's 22-foot-tall cast bronze replica of a historic donation collection box, modeled in the form of a little girl with a callipered leg. At her feet, though, is a crowbar used to jimmy open the box and nick the coins inside. Miss Charity is the scene of a heinous crime -- stealing from a spastic, robbing charity -- so why does one snigger? Could it have something to do with the price tag, rumored to be over 1,000,000?

Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy and Mark Jones of the Victoria and Albert Museum were opportunely muscled into the White Cube. Shamefully, none of the three institutions actually owns a major work by Hirst. Time to whip out the checkbooks, boys. With pieces in the gallery going for as much as 500,000 a pop, no wonder the triumvirate was sweating.

Inside, flashy jewelry designer Theo Fennell's pink monogrammed slippers contrasted splendidly with the nearby pool of sticky dried blood and tubing symbolizing the disembowelled guts of a case representing Judas Iscariot. Many of the lesser mortals had to queue an hour and a half to see Hirst's new collection.

Entering the gallery, the first work one sees is the Prodigal Son -- a calf cut in half, pickled in one of Hirst's trademark tanks.

Proceeding to the main room, we encounter the Apostles, a series of 13 works in wardrobe-sized display cases, mounted on the wall, representing the 12 disciples and Jesus. Lying in front of each disciple is a small tank containing pickled a cow's head, skinned and lacerated in varying degrees.

By contrast, the ethereal spirit of Jesus is represented by a clear glass tank. On the wall behind, a mirror-backed case is left pristinely empty to symbolize Christ's Ascension into Heaven. Above the case, a series of glass shelves crowded with clear glass vessels rises to the ceiling, surmounted by a stuffed white dove -- the Holy Spirit.

The Apostles plunges us into a blood-bath of martyred Catholicism possessing an immediacy of the high Baroque period typified by Gentileschi and Caravaggio. The impact is visceral, experienced by the body.

Each of the disciples' cases is defiled in variety of ways rich in symbolism. Bartholomew, who was flayed, has the outer skin of his case blow-torched off. Judas's spilt guts hang in a twisted curl of plastic tubing that rests in a pool of congealed deer's blood on the floor.

Shock for shock's sake? Not really. Hirst provokes but makes us think. Catholicism's central icon is a man crowned in thorns, heavily bleeding, nailed to a cross and stabbed by a spear. Imagine how equally shocking such a brutal image would be to an outsider.

Facing the Apostles are two large painted tondos, Rapture and Devotion, whose shimmering butterfly wings are transformed by the ecclesiastical atmosphere into stained glass-like patterns as radiant as those in Chartes cathedral -- another powerful contrast of the gorgeous with the gory, one that Hirst seems to do so well.

Upstairs, Adam and Eve appear as two bovine heads pierced and stabbed by shards of smashed mirrors, causing a kaleidoscope of glinting refractions, a startling commentary on the symbolic origins of human self-consciousness."The piece is about the fruit of temptation," says gallery owner Jay Jopling, "breaking open the imagination. It's like opening up the mind." But not without an empathetic wince from the spectator.

The Cancer Chronicles are a series of 13 canvases that are covered with hundreds of thousands of flies trapped in an amber-like resin. Each canvas is named after a fatal human illness such as leprosy, cancer, smallpox and syphilis. Not only is life short, it can be deadly.

JOE LA PLACA writes on art from London.