Damien Hirst – review

Tate Modern, London

The art flies are visible from the entrance, crawling over the severed cow's head, obligingly fulfilling their destiny by eating, breeding and dying on the sizzling blue light in double-quick time – the cycle of mortality abruptly compressed. The fish in their cabinets head hopelessly in the same direction, dead and shelved these past 20 years, getting nowhere with their cloudy blind eyes.

In the humid fug of an artificial paradise, huge butterflies feed on rotting fruit, procreate and hatch. Canvases on the walls are stained with their seeping cocoons. Dirty pretty things, these fragile creatures flap at anyone in bright clothes, mobbing the visitors, alighting perilously underfoot so that you are afraid to walk forward in case you crush them to death.

Dying, dead, long dead, still dead: there is no end to the end. The dead flies make a comeback on a colossal canvas, crusting the surface in their millions like blackened Rice Krispies. The bisected cows are fading like ghosts in their tanks of formaldehyde. Even the spot paintings make a point, so to speak, of being dismally lifeless. Look death in the eye – if you can.

Damien Hirst put his philosophical proposition across most powerfully with The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living in 1991. There was the shark with its alien contours, so motionless from the side it seemed not quite threatening – until you came face to face with its deadly expression. It was a fearsome experience, partly dependent on novelty and the pristine white context of Charles Saatchi's Boundary Road Gallery, but mainly upon its combination of title, idea and object.

But it's an experience no longer to be had, at Tate Modern or anywhere else. And this is not just because the original shark has long since been discarded for a younger model. It is that the shark cannot be innocently viewed. Or at least only someone who has never heard of Hirst's celebrity, his finances, his domination of the market, his long career in history and headlines, can see this work fresh without associating its force with that fame.

And this seems a besetting problem with (and for) this exhibition, Hirst's first full-dress show in a public museum. Although the curator, Ann Gallagher, has done her best to present a sober and intelligent selection, mercifully free of some of the lowest points – The Disciples, the cancer works, the dire "artist-made" paintings shown at the Wallace Collection in 2009 – Hirst is caught in the feedback of his own reputation.

Gallagher points out that most people have never seen the works except in reproduction. If that is true for you, then now is the ideal opportunity: the show covers 24 years and almost every phase. But if you have seen Hirst's work, considered it, formed opinions, then by definition this show presents two great obstacles, both of which are inherent to the work.

For everything Hirst makes is quick, slick, epigrammatic, and once the point is delivered – with a poke in the eye or a probe in the id – the sting is gone, leaving only the inert spectacle. And then, what is more, everything Hirst makes is repeated. One medicine cabinet, two medicine cabinets, 10 or 12; even the most resolute visitor, determined to make the effort to overcome hearsay, scepticism and perhaps previous disappointments of their own, may find their hopes defeated.

Tate Modern has his strongest works, to be sure: the shark, the flies, the lost sheep in their isolation tanks: natural history with a metaphysical kick; the gigantic ashtray containing several bin liners of butts from those Groucho Club days when members could still chain it. The ash stinks, the vessel is defiled, life's going up in smoke. Crematorium is its trenchant title.

What's new? Paradoxically, the oldest works here. The opening galleries return to the student Hirst of the 1980s, starting out with MDF kitchen units as a pepped-up pastiche of minimalist Donald Judd, and a hairdryer in Jeff Koons plexiglass keeping a ping-pong ball mindlessly alive with its gust. The very first spot painting has been brought out of the dark.

Painted by Hirst himself, these spots had some optical impact at the off, pullulating on their boards like one of those colour blindness tests in which you might discern emerging shapes.

His line at the time – that this was a way of being "in control of colour instead of it in control of me" – sounds like fighting talk, but when is an artist not in control of his colour? And what did this taming actually produce? The spots continue all the way round the show, larger, smaller, more or less of them in each grid but always boring, a brand extended to ever-pricier decor.

It didn't have to be this way: think of Bridget Riley's spots or Gerhard Richter's squares. Even in their own terms, Hirst's works could almost always be better. The medicine cabinets, for instance: all the mordant thoughts that could have been inspired by emphasising the pharmaceutical language, playing on the product names, creating tellingly nuanced arrays. Instead, he reproduces a pharmacy.

Nothing is transformed. Everything is itself. A black sheep is a black sheep, a cabinet full of surgical instruments is surgical, clinical. They represent only their own meaning or menace. And that limit is the more apparent when you come upon a work that has some meditative depth, such as Lullaby, The Seasons. Here, the narrow silver ledges of a mirrored cabinet are laid with all manner of sleeping pills in different hues and tones, beautifully tuned to each season. One sees oneself in a haze looking at this potentially deadly promise of sleep; and one passes in an optical shudder.

It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Hirst's work has become more grandiloquent and repetitive over the years. The butterflies have lately been used to pattern stained-glass windows for a church and abstract windows for a mosque. There is a disco gallery in which everything is reprised once more in spacey gold and eye-popping diamante. The cover of the Sotheby's sale catalogue is multiplied over and again to paper the walls, in the (exact) manner of Andy Warhol's cow wallpaper; another shark gets a black nightclub tank in which to lurk.

We can't say we weren't warned. The multiple editions turn out to have been a feature of Hirst's graduate show. The line extension of tanked creatures, spots and cabinets were a modus operandi from the start; always ahead of the game.

This retrospective feels honest, at least, in its incessant repetitions and candid self-exposure. Not many artists would show a work as irredeemably terrible as The Anatomy of an Angel: a hybrid of porn star and neoclassical nymph, sections of innards exposed in the (exact) manner of Norman Emms's anatomy models, wings out of an undertaker's catalogue and all of it sculpted in Carrara marble in the (exact) manner of Marc Quinn.

And not many artists would end with a white dove in a tank, hovering like the Holy Ghost above the head of a missing Christ. The spiritual connotations are clear. But the bird is self-evidently a taxidermist's pigeon with nasty little claws. Hirst has it both ways, but the consequence is sheer melodrama.

The gift was in the first flush: the shark, the flies, the paschal lamb in its celestial afterlife of silver bubbles. That has been the steady line on Hirst for so long that one can scarcely remember when that flush was. He keeps returning to it, of course, reviving those allegories for the market he has created and sustained. But even the shark – smaller, its mouth wrenched open to make it appear as intimidating as the last – now looks as if it is yawning. The first may have been best, on the evidence of this show, but it was also the beginning of the end.


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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