Thursday, 18 October 2012

Verity - A very grey Matter

The truth is there is something about “Verity” Damien Hirst’s newly installed 65ft seaside saucy statue. That something may well turn out to be truly terrible but that sword held aloft to the elements “by the power of grey skull” prods my old grey matter.  That dank old cavern whence my soul has fled. Like Verity, Hirst stands out on the craggy coastline of British art. There is no missing him. After being lost in the first Freeze show he swore he would never be missed again. I have a suspicion that the "something” that bothers me could be distilled to one word. “Naff”. That Princess Anne endorsed phrase that is in itself… well… naff. There’s a wrong end of the stickness to it. Like that creepy Dr. Hagen Das who freezes people. Oooh look we’re all flesh and blood and will one day die but we stand defiant in the face of everything nature can throw at us. Admirable sentiments. But still a bit embarrassing. But hey that’s good isn’t it? I’m challenged into being embarrassed. Well perhaps I should get angry instead of embarrassed. I mean Hirst is no Paul Day who would seem like to easy a target but there is something of the pomposity of Day’s “Meeting” in Hirst’s “Verity”. Damien Hirst seems to have unwittingly strayed into the arena of Public Art where not even the depth of empathy found in a Henry Moore will keep you safely beyond the withering gaze of Mr. Clean.  Respect is due for Damien’s competition winner's ear for a good punning title though. On my recent visit to his (long over due) retrospective at the Tate Modern I marvelled at the titles alone. The winner is Beautiful, pop, spinning ice creamy, whirling, expanding painting’.
I should explain that all sense of human endeavour does excite me. Ever since my teacher intoned a passage of Milton giving shape Satan's rhetoric on the burning lake. I find myself drawn to any trace of our failings and so such a grand clunky design does entice the humanist in me. The scale of the sheer wrongness is mesmerising. All that would be valiant if there was a hint of self-depreciating humour. Some attempt at hiding the effort of the construction. But no the height (is it 65 or 66ft/) the tonnage (20 tonnes) the amount of separate components (40 individual castings over a central stainless steel frame with an appended glass fibre reinforced polymer arm) is somehow what it is. No more no less. What saves it perhaps is function. This bening that now approaching matelots will find the hitherto evasive harbour much easier to spot. In a recent Daily Mail travel blog Frank Barrett draws a comparison to the outrage that the Eiffel Tower drew from even the most cultured of Parisians and suggests that citizens of Ilfracombe will soon come to love the statue and end up finding it hard to give her up when the 20 year lease comes up. There is an interesting analogy here in that the sole function of the Eiffel tower was to be wind resistant at such great height. This defined the form. Hirst's statue under went rigorous wind tunnel tests to make sure it would withstand the high winds and sea spray. Perhaps this is what led to the streamline “by the power of grey skull”  stylings. In much the same way that classical statuary used the tree stump to give the figure stability.
The classical allusion is no accident and over the years Hirst has flogged the Écorchéd corpse (Hymn) in what seems like a scream for intellectual recognition. Since the high renaissance the understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the human form has been somehow synonymous with intellectual rigour. To draw the surface we must first understand the internal anatomy. Boy oh boy there are still people who teach drawing like this too. This obsession led to the strangest most neurotic strategies in the name of art. I point the reader towards Smugglerius as one such abomination that grew from the belief that classicism provided a backbone of rigorous intellectual stability in the face of impending descent in hackism.
 Verity is pointing up at the soul shaped hole. The pagan void where nothing is sacred. God as man is dead. God as dad is dead. Yes get over it and move on it was your idea to make it a he and give him a beard in the first place, to summarise Feuerbach. My point is that Hirst is of that lineage from Michelangelo of art that uses sheer scale and grand endeavour to escape earthly shackles because is has no access to the appropriate language of metaphor to do otherwise. Humanism led to a species-specific fixation with the material world as it rapidly became laid bare to the expanding intellect of the western mind. Michelangelo’s only escape was to therefore depict himself in the last Judgement as the flayed figure of St. Bartholomew. Escaping his own skin – geddit? Prior to the Renaissance, Art (of the Byzantine nature) had been about an unspoken resonance beyond the surface of the image. There was no struggle between seeing "through" the image and being made aware of the surface of the picture plain – dilemmas I suggest that drove the artist from Eden. However, Michelangelo also happened to escape the earthly shackles by the happy accident of his sublime virtuosity and understanding of materials. Remember he “found” David within the marble. Although the apparent subject of the statue is intellect defeating brawn something far more profound emerges through the miracle of process. that something is just that - miraculous. Damien Hirst was (un)fortunate enough to have become an artist in a time when to "chose" is enough to make something art (with enough conviction/scale). Duchamp was not suggesting for one minute that all artists follow this strategy rigidly but that is what our “success’ based culture has arrived at as a template a century on. Make no mistake this statue is about “art” and mortality. Equals hubris. Duh duh duh. Life, death, flesh and blood, defiance - Underscored with the heady acrid bouquet of imagining what would Gordon Ramsey make if he was a sculptor? Certainly nothing as exquisite as Degas “Little Dancer” upon which “Verity” is said to have been modelled. Degas has made the soul visible in that piece but Hirst seems not to have notice that he has let the posture lose its grace. The sculpture I must conclude is a sixth form essay writ large in 40 separate castings on a stainless steel frame. Sounds good to me. I want to see it but then I am a sucker for seaside novelties.

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