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December 12, 2006

The Artist as Huckster: Jane Kelly on In the darkest hour there may be light - Works from Damien Hirst's murderme collection at the Serpentine Gallery

Posted by Jane Kelly

In the darkest hour there may be light
Works from Damien Hirst's murderme collection
Serpentine Gallery, London
25th November 2006 - 28th January 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm

The boy done good, worth about 35m at the last count, jubbly that Del Boy wouldn't have dreamed of - but then he didn't understand the contemporary art market and Damien Hirst certainly does.

World famous for his carcasses suspended in tanks of formaldehyde and his endless spot paintings, contemporary Art is his manor, his turf, his gaff, and a very nice little earner.

Like any wide boy flashing his watch or his wheels, Hirst has always been keen to show off his prowess as a collector. He held his Freeze exhibition in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths, then came Modern Medicine, Gambler and Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away at the Serpentine in the 1990s.

His latest show, In The Darkest Hour There May Be Light - a title to replace the original Buggerme, which his mother didn't like - also called Murderme, which is dangerously inviting, is a grand souk of fashionable detritus, 65 objects, sculpture, photos, paintings, installations by 24 artists, junk by the rich for the rich, bunged together for your delight.

Hirst claims to have 1,111 paintings, sculptures, concepts and artefacts in his private collection, which is insured for 100 million.

A true child of the Thatcher era, what he collects and shows isn't much to do with art. It is more about saleable goods and amassing "stuff", and in case we are in any doubt about Hirst's view of art, he charges 38 for the catalogue, with no concessions. Don't turn up here unless you are a real Hirstian with loadsamoney or you may feel depressed.

Despite the provocative title of the show, there are few surprises here. His first duty as a contemporary curator is to entertain his old friends, and to show their work. In the entrance there is a blue neon coffin shape, New Religion (Blue), made in 1999 by Sarah Lucas. Neon was just so trendy back in the days of Brit Art. It's repeated in a work by Tracey Emin, from her blue neon period.

It is interesting, and perhaps gratifying as a painter, to see how stale these works look already after such a short time, but they were always turgid. Brits, no matter how rebellious they pretend to be, often cannot help telling their viewers how to behave, and as mores change so the message goes stale.

Lucas, in her Seven Up, with blown up images from the dreaded Daily Sport, highlighting tabloid trash and the treatment of women as commodified objects, can never escape the need to give out blatant moral messages.

Despite the sheer nastiness of such pieces as Chicken Knickers, the photo of a child with a chicken carcass over her genitals, the bird's body cavity representing her vagina, Lucas's work takes me back to Victorian narrative painters such as Luke Fildes. These artists were labouring up a didactic dead end that ultimately kept British painters away from true artistic expression and new aesthetic movements developing in France.

There are exceptions of course. Emin is only interested in dramatising her own life with its apparent lack of moral purpose, and here she gives us not just neon lights but a sleeping bag and some discarded trainers, although they might have been abandoned by one of the blank faced young attendants who stand about watching in case anyone transgresses against the transgressive artefacts on show.

Then there is Hirst's old friend Banksy, the Bristolian graffiti artist and stencillor. A real performance artist, with a lot more genuine mad passion than Hirst himself, this September he dressed an inflatable doll as a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay and put it inside a ride in the Disney Land Theme Park. Ingenious and daring in his stunts, his images on canvass are often puerile and hackneyed. He offers us a tired old poster portrait of Lenin, and an untitled portrait of the medieaval image of death on horseback, with a smiley face superimposed.

Like artist Tom Ormond, Banksy likes to attack formal art. There is a painting on show by Ormond in which a chocolate box landscape of the Constable variety has been desecrated. However the parody falls down as it has been so badly painted. There is nothing worse than trees painted by someone who has never really looked at them properly. In his inimitable way Hirst tells us:

I love that piece ... he takes a found landscape and basically shits on it to make a great painting. Banksy is a great artist.
Of course Hirst himself has no message at all, he does not cut up animals because he is a vegetarian with any searing message about factory farming, he is a dedicated welfare state nihilist who probably lives on Turkey Twizlers.

Hirst's only known interest is serial murder. Apparently he kept US killer Jeffrey Dahmer's biography by his bed for years, and once observed that Dahmer, who from early childhood keenly collected road kill, had a:

terrible curiosity to find how living things work by taking them to pieces.
The same curiosity has driven much of Hirst's own work, and to some extent his collecting too, for this show is haunted - as Brian Sewell has pointed out - by his demimonde friends' references to death, sex, mutilation and decay.

Death is presented in myriad forms. Sarah Lucas' works imbued with ugliness and pointless cruelty. New Yorker, Richard Prince, noted on-line as a "top performer" in the auction houses, in his Five Jokes Painted to Death, presents pieces of text covered in paint. There are the gloomy and pointless seven skulls by Steven Gregory, deliberately shocking with their shiny human teeth, designed to scare granny and small children. There is Banksy's image of death, which is repeated in a photo of a tattooed arm.

The Incomplete History of the Unknown Discovery, with bits of plastic white whale cut into slabs, surrounded by stage blood, accompanied by a slowed up video of the inside of a tube train, by John Isaacs, makes no real comment on modern forms of cruelty, any more than Hirst's own sawn up cadavers. The message is just that old teenage belly-ache again about non-being and nothingness.

The most interesting examination of this void is represented by Isaacs' large, half peeled King Edward's potato, made of wax. This shows some workmanship and the idea behind it is surely about "stuff", the only purpose of the show. The opposite of the sublime, the potato is just stuff, as base and meaningless as anything you can name.

In other hands it can be highly emblematic and has attracted painters such as Van Gogh and Paul Henry. In modern work it has been used by German artist Sigmar Polke who in his 1969 Potato Stool and Potato House, examined its regenerative force, seeing it as:

a source of reproductivity and a compelling metaphor.
For Irish artists of course it represents a weapon in their 800 year war against the English. Here it is just vaguely comic, an image of the unchanging, continuing problem of being, which for Hirst and his friends seems so meaningless, apart from money and celebrity of course.

Like any good market trader Hirst likes to rough up his customers, and they just love it. There are very few paintings on show, none worth mentioning unless you go for the seaminess of Laurence Owen's Spot the Dogging, a horrible canvass showing badly painted people copulating in a poorly executed park.

But among all this garbage our curator-ring-master teasingly throws in the odd genuine gem - just to keep everyone alert to the fact that he can really afford the real stuff when he chooses. His Francis Bacon, A Study for a figure at the base of the crucifixion, 1943-44, and his Warhol Electric Chair, together must be worth about 10 million at least.

His comment on the early Bacon - "un-fuckingbelievable" - could be about the quality of the painting or on his ownership. Has he nothing more profound to say of his Warhol, Little Electric Chair, 1965, than it is one of:

the greatest artworks of the 20th century [and ] I fucking need one of those.
The Jeff Koons Hoover Deluxe 1980, is probably there for just the same ill considered reason.

One wonders if Hirst realised how his few works of artistic value damn the rest. The Warhol, caustic and to the point as an electric current, made with a detached journalistic eye, blasts to nothing the Brit Art works around it - like a barbed observation from Truman Capote against obscene comments from oiks full of lager. In the Bacon and the Warhol we have works personally felt and pitilessly described juxtaposed with the mumblings of people with no point of view.

But if he realises this he doesn't care. Hirst collects rather in the way working class folk used to buy the latest white goods and caravans, desperately keeping up with the neighbours. Lord knows where he keeps all this stuff, perhaps on his super-duper yacht, but no doubt he has a mansion somewhere.

He is not content just to deliver intellectual discomfort. Always a prankster, for some pathetic reason he has put all the labels naming the works at skirting board level, so you have to bend, squat or grovel to identify what you see, and even then there is no mention of any materials used. As a true follower you are probably expected to know all the works intimately anyway. When I asked one of the attendants - who was busy doing her exercises - why he had done this, she admitted she had no idea.

But he doesn't have to explain what he does. After all this is the age of the celebrity not the talented artist, the showman-prankster turned curator not the art historian.

The exhibition truly does reflect our modern culture and its values where everything can be bought, sold and chucked away.

A quick look into the Serpentine Gallery bookshop seemed to prove this. On a shelf at small child height, the first thing I saw was Butt magazine, prominently displayed. I was able to feast my eyes on men committing obscene acts before browsing through a booklet called Voyeur showing photos from the death camps of World War Two, mixed up with fashion shots and cuddly animals.

We are all sad voyeurs now, curators like TV hosts serve us up with the dismal stuff we crave, and no image is sacred or cannot be easily discarded. As the title on one of Sarah Lucas' works says: "it sucks".

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

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