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Monday, 12 November 2007

Damien Hurst's Master Class

Damien Hurst goes back to school, lessons taught or learnt, I can almost hear the headlines now... but on second thoughts they are more likely to be about headless students, bovine professors and such-like. Will I be alone in detecting a strong element of humour in Damien Hurst's latest? Whatever might have been thought about his past productions, pickled shark et al (and just about everything that could have been thought was thought - and fought over) it surely must be agreed that there is an easily understood rationale to his most recent installation, which should make it less controversial than many that have preceded it. The concept - I am tempted to use the literary term conceit - is that of an anatomy school. This is a potentially rich theme allowing for the drawing together of many threads from earlier preoccupations.

And Hurst misses few of those opportunities, it seems to me. A cow flanked by doves does duty as the teacher (fertile ground for punning remarks by critics and reviewers?), whilst the pupils (yet more fertile ground?) are represented by rows of headless, pickled sheep (did I not mention - did I even need to mention - that the Anatomy School is contained within a twelve feet high tank of formaldehyde?) and the mischievous, no doubt pupil-from-hell at the back, is none other than our old friend the shark. The book shelves hold, not books, but rows of medicine bottles and boxes of pills. Been there before, have we not? Hurst has said that the shark represents individuality and the sheep uniformity, the uniformity of education through which "people end up as dead sheep; alive, but not much alive". And the cow...?

Whether or not I agree, I can relate to that, unsubtle though it is - so unsubtle that I could probably have worked it out for myself. And the title of this installation? The Archaeology of Lost Desires Comprehending Infinity and the Search for Knowledge. Not quite so easy to access whatever rationale is behind that, perhaps. We are talking here of an installation that stands in (fills) the very large lobby of Lever House in Manhattan, that will become part of the Lever Collection and that comprises 30 tanks, each supported by a stainless steel autopsy table bearing a sheep's carcass and a 30,000-pound tank containing two sides of beef, in addition to the shark, numerous medicine cabinets etc, etc, and... oh, yes, a leather arm chair, a long string of Italian sausages and a black umbrella.

I will forbear to mention how much Hurst was paid for the installation, but I do believe that the rationale, as I have called it, is sufficiently interesting to deserve success. It's continuity with so much of his past work is also a plus. But does it work aesthetically? Is an installation even supposed to? Does it work in any important dimension? Who can say who has not seen the actual work up close and personal? If you have, or should you get to in the future, a comment would be appreciated. Otherwise, we have to leave him where he has always been - in a class of his own.

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