Hirst’s Tate retrospective is brash, crass and completely compelling

Steve Dinneen
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Tate Modern

The killer killed. The inevitability and unfathomability of death. Death, death, death. Spot, spot, death, spot, death. You know what you get with Hirst. His pickled shark has become shorthand not just for his body of work but for a generation of modern art, as have his ubiquitous spots, which follow you around the Tate like a recurring migraine.

His career has seen him shift from the man who put British modern art on the map, to the artist people loved to hate, to – judging by the reception of his last show – the man they just hate.

This retrospective is a reminder that the first opinion was justified. There isn’t a single piece that isn’t instantly recognisable as Hirst’s. His fascination with death has seeped so far into the public consciousness that seeing these works collected feels a bit like going to a family reunion, or, perhaps, a brightly coloured funeral.

The “live” installations are the real crowd pleasers. It is hard not to gawp with a school-boy’s morbid fascination at A Thousand Years, his giant tank featuring maggots hatching into flies, feasting on the congealed blood of a rotting cow’s head, only to be fried in a tiny burst of electricity in a nearby bug-zapper. A room full of live butterflies, preceded by works crafted from the corpses of their dead cousins is another neat demonstration of the fragility of life. His later work seems to revel in its own crassness – topped by a room dripping in gold and diamonds – as he struggled to integrate his fame and wealth into the recurring themes of his work.

And then, there is his installation in the Turbine Hall: For the Love of God (which, incidentally, is what you’ll say when you see the size of the queue). It takes balls to put a single skull, albeit a rather glittery one, in the biggest display space in the country. But this is Hirst – balls are not something he lacks.

The final room of his exhibition is – fittingly – a shop: a two-fingered salute, perhaps, to those who deride his work as mass-produced and profit-obsessed. Spot t-shirts, butterfly umbrellas, skull hoodies. And, if you have a couple of grand to spare, your very own Hirst piece. It’s brash, sometimes crass and absolutely compelling.