There's something about the sight of an art student in high-heeled boots kneeling down and pressing her pretty nose to a vent to inhale a festering, fly-encrusted cow's head that makes me squirm with delight. Is this what Damien Hirst had in mind when he first conceived of A Thousand Years (1990), one of the many familiar works on display in his just-opened Tate Modern retrospective?
The piece, which consists of a minimalist, glass-encased white box in which maggots hatch into flies, then migrate to a second vitrine to feed on the dead thing and return home to breed, is an masterful visual summary of the cycle of life – either that, or a Grade 6 science project gone horribly wrong. The vision is rebirth but the smell is pure death. What else would one expect from Britain's grandmaster of the macabre?
What's less predictable, perhaps, is the fact that this exhibition even exists in the first place. According to Hirst, major museums have been asking him to stage retrospectives since he was just a shark-preserving art-school grad at the tender age of 27. For years, he swore he'd never do a show like this one (that is to say big, mainstream and all-encompassing), but, as in most areas of his career, the temptation to glory proved too great.
Of all his Young British Artist contemporaries, Hirst seems most content to bathe in the attendant fame and riches of worldwide artistic success. And there's been buckets to bathe in. With an estimated net worth of well over £200-million (more than $300-million), he is generally acknowledged to be the world's richest living artist (though we won't hold it against him, as a number of the dead ones are also rolling in it), and it's a label he clearly delights in. See his diamond-encrusted human skull, dead calf with 18-carat-gold hooves and horns floating in formaldehyde and legendary sold-out Sotheby's show/auction for details.
Over the past two decades, no name has become more popularly synonymous with contemporary conceptual art than Hirst's. Essentially he has done for dead things what Andy Warhol did for soup cans, which is no small feat in an accelerated culture that gobbles up good ideas and spits them out faster than you can say "decapitated rotting sheep's head."
His critics are legion, and his fans are often hard-pressed to defend him – since arguing that a piece of art is just "cool" is something different than being able to say with conviction that it's truly moving or beautiful (whatever that vague and tattered term actually means).
In truth, many of those who sneer at Hirst are simply sneering at contemporary art in general; the sort of folks who like to spend time arguing about what is or isn't "actually art." But as Hirst himself recently pointed out in an interview, "All art starts life as contemporary – I can't really see a difference. Michelangelo was definitely getting that, everybody was getting it. I'm sure there were people in caves going, 'I like your cave but I hate that crap you've got on the wall.' "
He has a point. Indeed, if Hirst does one thing well, it's divide – both figuratively (public opinion) and literally (dead animals). His famous work Mother and Child Divided (1993), which consists a cow and her calf split in half and preserved in glass, is like an eerie binary machine turned inside out.
"I always like to admit and deny something at the same time," he has said of his predilection for working with pairs of things.
At the same time, there are other works in this show that simply don't feel relevant or fresh any more. Pharmacy (1992), the room of vintage medicine chests filled with prescription drugs, evokes nothing for me but a tedious date I once had in the early 2000s at Hirst's Notting Hill restaurant of the same name and design. Who actually wants to eat dinner in a chemist's shop, I remember wondering despondently at the time.
By the same token, I suppose there are people who find the blank spectre of coloured dots painted on a white canvas endlessly fascinating to look at, but I am not one of them.
The local reviews are in and most of them are reservedly damning – there is a sense among the press in London that Hirst should have made more of his talent, and this show is evidence of a once-starry reputation in decline.
Be that as it may, the city's chattering classes were out in full force at the opening this week. If there's one thing Hirst is good at, after all, it's providing an excuse for a party. As the well-groomed crowd patiently lined up to see In and Out of Love (1991), a humid room filled with abandoned pupae and butterflies drunk on bowls of festering fruit, I watched as the queue was jumped by Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, holding the hand of a small girl in a fairy dress who was presumably his granddaughter.
As a publicist ushered the craggy rock star and his nubile date in ahead of everyone else, the crowd began to get agitated. "Obviously they wanted to get him in to see it before he croaked," the woman behind me snarled. It was a perfect encapsulation of how money, fame and the spectre of death can conspire to trump the moment.
Annoying? Yes. Vulgar? Certainly. But Hirst would undoubtedly approve.