First the good news: there are some impressive works in the first show in Damien Hirst’s year-long “takeover” of Gagosian’s Britannia Street space, Damien Hirst: Fact Paintings and Sculptures. Take Cancer (2003), a cabinet of books filled with oncological tomes. The surgical steel and glass cabinet and the neutral, academic spines of the books belie the brutality of cancer, its devastation of the body. Hirst has always been good at drawing together science, belief and fear.
But Cancer stands out because almost everything around it is so dull and, oddly for Hirst, so directionless. Whatever the merits of his discrete bodies of work, they tend at least to be coherent conceptually. This show, though, is a mess.
The idea behind the Fact paintings – close renderings in of photographic imagery – and sculptures – replicas of real objects and everyday stuff — is that they question concepts of truth and reality. But the imagery is sprawling and unfocused. Butterflies on flowers and fruit and a woman snorkelling with a dolphin are as forgettable as stock press shots. There’s a nameless art collector with one of Hirst’s spot paintings, the artist Michael Craig-Martin, who taught Hirst, with his famous diamond skull, and Hirst himself, reflected in glass as he snaps one of his anatomical models in a cabinet.
We’re told to see the paintings together as a kind of self-portrait, marking Hirst’s life and career. But how does one of the more recent paintings, Notre-Dame on Fire (2019) fit with that narrative? Whatever, it’s an emblem of the series’ abject failure — an event that shocked and traumatised millions which, when rendered with the Fact paintings’ meticulous lifelessness, prompts nothing more than a shrug.
If anything, most of the sculptures are worse, like the replicas of a tea tent Hirst has encountered at snooker tournaments, an unfinished kitchen unit with an unplumbed sink, a stack of shelves with cardboard boxes from Hirst’s studio.
I kept thinking: why? Visually, they’re unspeakably boring. Do they serve any symbolic or intellectual purpose? It beats me. Meanwhile, in creating a vast oversized scalpel Hirst turns an object that in its original, handheld form has a miraculous cold lethality into an impotent bauble.
The works that first greet you are a series of conventional jewellery cabinets based on those at Bentley and Skinner, who made the diamond skull, accompanied by rubbish bags and green bins. A point so obvious, it beggars belief.
I kept thinking of the time and energy it took to make these works – the thousands of hours dedicated by Hirst’s army of painters, assistants, technicians and fabricators. Yet most of the pieces can’t have taken more than a few seconds to think up. So much of the Fact series shouldn’t have got past the back of the fag packet.
Gagosian Britannia St, NW1, gagosian.com