It could be written, for the sake of argument, that: in the beginning, there was the shark, and that the shark, in its bluish vitrine, was Good. This would not, as this Tate retrospective reminds us, be really, empirically truthful -- in the beginning, there were a few hamfisted shots at sculpture (a kitchen cabinet, pots and pans, some glossy cardboard boxes shoved into warehouse rafters) and these, it is generally agreed, were Not Good At All -- but there is a sense, nonetheless, from the work on show here, of an early greatness never fully recaptured, of innocence and integrity lost. Any mention of A Thousand Years in recent review is required to include the famous Freud quote about starting with the final act; what more is there to say, other than to dutifully confirm that it is indeed Hirst's most lofty attainment, one of the greatest artworks of its century? The vitrine, with its swarming flies and bleeding head, is almost pointlessly familiar -- in person, still, it is overwhelming, a jolt of ultraviolet energy straight to the centre of the amygdala. A first-time viewer, on drawing close, may be surprised by the attendant stench, the smell of death and the nongermane gore, but its grisliness is haunting, and soothing in its impermanence. The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, meanwhile, is a different prospect than it was ten years ago, more melancholic, the shark less shark-like, but its greater message – the queer magnitude of death – is equally apparent. Before, the Reaper hung in the jaws of this huge, suspended beast, buoyed up by a common human phobia: now, its effects are seen on the animal's sagging, softening body, which goes the way of all flesh, or the way of a dampened cigarette butt, slumping into pulp, and then into ash.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991, Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution; © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates
Hirst's later works, by contrast, don't feel as cohesive, or as outright gutsy – I am wholly unable, for instance, to rationalise the artist's exhaustive continuation of his early spot paintings, despite their soothing visual style ("they remind me," said a friend, when taxed with giving them conceptual heft, "of a bathroom of a mid-priced chain hotel.") Crematorium is, at best, a sophomoric one-line joke: a room of artworks rendered in gold appear to have been made with the collector in mind, designed as addendums to the front-room of a millionaire, and the famous skull, with its pithy title, feels wilfully offensive in its ostentation. These gilded works and their various trimmings -- not the cruor-soaked cow's head with the lolling tongue, which will rot in its vitrine -- will survive their YBA creator, whose early affinity for the ephemeral is succeeded By The Love, not Of God, but of money, and the bleak foreverness of commerce. The specter of death, as is evidenced in this retrospective, is far from impossible in the living mind: a layman might take some schadenfreudic comfort in knowing that it lurks, sharklike, in the id of the wealthy man alike.
(Image on top right: Damien Hirst, Lullaby, the Seasons (detail) , 2002, Glass, stainless steel, steel, aluminium, nickel, bismuth and cast resin, coloured plaster and painted pills with dry transfers; © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates)