Timespotting: Damien Hirst’s Finite Jest

by Tom McGlynn, February 2012

As much as I don’t like being an art “handler,” Damien Hirst’s multiple simultaneous arrivals at Gagosian Galleries worldwide requires some unpacking. As his spot paintings sat on the gallery floor at Gagosian’s West 24th St. location in New York City, prepped for installation alongside similar works in ten other locales from London to Athens to Hong Kong, the phenomenological reality of Hirst’s grand gesture is brought home. In this as well as the other spaces, these large, hand-made, polka dotted pieces would be fixed in a specific time and place against the asymmetry of random experience. With his technical orchestration, Hirst minimizes chance by creating a kind of irrational uniformity. Like the form of the paintings, which are fixed symmetric grids of contrapuntal multicolored spots, a tension is felt between this controlled experiment and random life. His is a subverted Newtonian physics. The apple falls predictably straight down, dappled sun is sieved through a prism to reveal its constituent color wavelengths, and all of it happens in freeze frame.

Hirst’s projects are most often conceived under an empirical lens. The late-eighteenth and early-nineteeth-century theatricality of his prior installations from the shark tank to the vitrines filled with vivisected bovines smack of the curiosity cabinets and studies of learned amateurs. The casts of Enlightenment men were basically alchemists morphing into men of modern science, amateurs in the sense that we would see them in relation to the professional research class we presently maintain. In retrospect there’s a bit of an endearingly awkward, home-made quality to their experiments and models left behind. It is this pathos, of the innocence of old-fashioned empirical investigation, which imbues a lot of Hirst’s work in this particular vein.

With regards to his place in contemporary art, Hirst is a reactionary against progressive modernism, similar to the way Picasso was. While Picasso may have wanted to re-enchant modern painting with a primitive animus by appropriating African artifacts from an anthropological museum, Hirst virtually loots the studies and libraries of Enlightenment-era manor houses.  Both artists felt compelled to slow down, stop or even reverse time in order to avoid the searching clinical light of what Baudelaire once referred to as the “gloomy beacon” of the New.

All of this is relevant to what could be called Hirst’s present gesture of staging a series of symmetrically conceived paintings in a simultaneous environment. In these shows, Hirst’s conceptual cartwheel (remembering those notorious spin-art paintings) retains the model of the projection of empirical belief while capitulating to the failure of its promise.

Hirst’s bad faith is augmented by some of the changing social realities of contemporary life. This is the core of his work. The fearful symmetry of his spot paintings installed in multiple locales worldwide is not the kind that illuminates the tangled network jungles of the postmodern night. Instead it creates a network overlay that functions as an amusing but purely technical representation, like the automata that delighted the pre-revolutionary courts of Europe. His punch card pathos slots too neatly into the crystalline structures of virtual social space that have come to dominate our current social and political reality. Is it true? Could Hirst be our most accurate representational artist?

Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011
12 January—February/March 2012
Gagosian Galleries, worldwide