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Gregory Williams

Size Matters Damien Hirst, "Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings", Gagosian Gallery, New York

Damien Hirst, "Hymn", 2000 Damien Hirst, "Hymn", 2000

Damien Hirst, "Lost Love", 2000 Damien Hirst, "Lost Love", 2000

Damien Hirst, "Death is Irrelevant", 2000 Damien Hirst, "Death is Irrelevant", 2000

Overheard amid the cavernous spaces of the Gagosian Gallery late last year, a comment made by a visitor got right to the heart of the experience of Damien Hirst's recent work. The woman was standing in front of Hymn (1999), a 20-foot-high, 7-ton, painted bronze torso of a man with partially removed skin and exposed innards, when she exclaimed, "I know him. He's the Invisible Man we use to teach kids about anatomy." Faced with the enormity of Hirst's polychromatic colossus, she had imagined him as the popular 2-foot-high children's anatomical model with the removable internal organs. In other words, she mentally brought him down to size in order to find some route of access to such a bombastic sculptural object.

In his third appearance at Gagosian, Hirst relied on the easy maxim, "bigger is better," to impose himself on the New York audience. With the all-encompassing title of "Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings," his show promised a lot and ultimately delivered little in the way of compelling ideas. Hirst is known for such long-winded titles, which generally lead to disappointment since all of the power of the work is invested in the wall labels. They tend to suggest an allegorical mode of address, leading one to anticipate relatively high-minded content (whether clinical, comical or romantic). In the case of the Gagosian show, the name brought to mind the realm of scientific research. There were indeed plenty of references to this appropriately expansive field of activity among the works on view, but a gap often arose between the apparent message of the phrase and the resulting object. This was not simply a question of irony; Hirst just seemed incapable of translating his clever phrases into challenging works. A strong tension even existed between the exhibition and its accompanying book (of the same name), which contained far more "hardcore" material (including forensic photography and graphic descriptions of horrible accidents and injuries) than anything found in the gallery.

The truly disconcerting thing about being surrounded by Hirst's new sculptures and paintings is that little opportunity was left open to gain any "distance" necessary for either the immediate act of perception or the subsequent process of interpretation. On the physical level, Gagosian had doubled the size of his gallery (now the biggest in Chelsea) for Hirst, who filled his end of the bargain by cramming the five rooms with 31 new pieces, several of which could have comfortably occupied a smaller gallery on their own. No matter which way you turned, a large, cumbersome Gestalt loomed before your eyes. Even the walls were covered from top to bottom with an enlarged graph-paper grid labeled "Math Systems" that laid bare the extent to which this show had been choreographed: its suggestion of the plotting of coordinates pointed to the fact that every wall surface and square meter of floor space was mapped out in order keep the viewer's field of vision constantly occupied. Hirst's horror vacui gave the exhibition the dynamic of a retrospective, where often quantity wins out over quality.

The second problem of proximity, which concerns a metaphorical type of distance, had less to do with the work itself and was more a result of the cult of personality generated by Hirst and his publicity machine. New York has always needed the presence of visiting or transplanted Europeans like Duchamp, Dali and Beuys to enable it to function as a certified member of the international culture industry. Depending on the historical moment or the stage of the artist's career, they have been given varying degrees of welcome or disregard. As a pioneer of avant-garde culture in the United States, Duchamp found a fledgling group of like-minded individuals who would revere him as an importer of revolutionary ideas. Dalì, on the other hand, never received the kind of attention he craved, even when he tried to augment his notoriety with carefully calculated public spectacles. For his part, Hirst's last show of 1996 at Gagosian's old SoHo space had been roundly trashed by the local critics due to its chaos of unrelated and individually weak parts. Then when the pseudo-scandal erupted around the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999, Hirst's work (all older examples) took a back seat to the controversy surrounding Chris Ofili's painted Virgin with the offending elephant dung. Hirst's most significant contribution to the museum was in all the toy sharks sold in the gift shop that turned his embalmed fish into merchandise. But of course Hirst is as successful an entrepreneur as he is an artist. Highly attuned to the current economic climate, he and Gagosian made their latest move at an extremely opportune time for an artist of monumental ambition.

Chelsea has grown over the past several years into a king-size art mall, with the relatively recent openings of spaces by heavy-hitters from the 1980s (besides Gagosian, there is now Sonnabend and Mary Boone) making the transition from SoHo almost complete. Once Hirst's show, which ran for double the length of time typically devoted to solo exhibitions, had opened, rumors were flying regarding the enormous costs involved in mounting it. Charles Saatchi was reported to have paid $1.5 million for Hymn, money that most likely went into covering the expenses incurred from producing the works. Hirst himself seemed to be made of cash, having flown in around 50 of his friends to witness his glory and help him perform the requisite hotel damage at the SoHo Grand demanded of a "bad-boy" celebrity. The press followed him around with glee and the attendance at the gallery was comparable to the crowds drawn by surveys of Impressionism at the Metropolitan. Hirst's show was granted the status of a major media event, which could only serve to deflect interest from a critical discussion of the actual objects on view.

Although most accounts in the newspapers and lifestyle magazines centered on Hirst's behavior and reputation, some writers managed to discuss the experience of encountering the work. The general consensus was that Hirst, though his obsession with size and quantity overrode any sense of subtlety, had come through this time with an honorable effort and he received high marks overall. Two of the more perceptive reviews, written by Roberta Smith and David Rimanelli, each pointed to the heavy use of industrial-strength steel-and-glass vitrines as a way of producing "a needed sense of distance for the viewer." Their point was that these finely crafted containers allow us to take a comforting step back from the things we most fear and desire, whether it is gory or mildly frightening ("cadavers" covered in sheets oozing fluids; rows of shiny medical instruments that bring torture to mind), or even infused with an overt appeal to beauty (colorful tropical fish swimming around a submerged doctor's examination room; clean and polished skeletons of various mammals on shelves). In this show, Hirst evidenced a roughly equal concern with attraction and repulsion.

Hirst has been thematizing the mechanics of display (always borrowing heavily from Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton and Haim Steinbach) from the early years of his career, when he enclosed a mock office space in glass before moving on to his signature sliced animals. There were no beasts in formaldehyde at Gagosian, and even the sculptures that brought up associations of pain and discomfort (for instance, The Void, which presents 8,000 neatly arranged, hand-crafted replicas of pills taken for all manner of ailments) were somehow too aesthetically pleasing to be threatening. Indeed, much of the material found in the cases was completely innocuous and almost seemed to be an afterthought. Though Hirst was consistent in his focus on humorously representing the spaces of science, research and the archive, the sheer accumulation of minor variations on a narrow range of ideas slowly drained the works of any impact. Once I had lost interest in thinking about why there might be live fish gliding serenely around a gynecologist's chair, all I could notice was the fine workmanship of these water-tight vessels. Considered from this perspective, the walls of the vitrines were more than just physical barriers between the visitor and the supposedly abject content: they called attention to themselves as the primary structures of the exhibition.

This was nowhere more pronounced than in a work entitled Concentrating on a Self-Portrait as a Pharmacist. Here were three progressively smaller vitrines within vitrines that marked off separate zones of enclosure. In the central chamber stood an easel with a sketchy, amateurish portrait in oil of Hirst wearing a lab coat. It was surrounded by the brushes and tubes of paint (the painter's pharmaceuticals) traditionally employed by the artist in the studio but more or less abandoned by Hirst in his assembly-line mode of production. Opposite the canvas in another glass box was a mirror with the words "I Love You" written on it in what appeared to be red lipstick. The viewer was presented with an ironic scene of self-love, a transparent look into a side of Hirst's practice that does not actually exist in such an old-school form. The work is a send-up of a type of art-making that Hirst has forsaken, one that is far removed from his world of restaurant ownership, spectacle management and business promotion. Once aware of the essential emptiness of the display case, there was little left to ponder except one's own reflection in the surface of the glass.

Gregory Williams

"Damien Hirst: Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings", Gagosian Gallery, New York, September 23 to December 16, 2000