running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Pills, Thrills and (almost) No Bellyaches

Friday, 20 March 2009

In what is certainly a rare change of opinion, I am officially the newest fan of the erstwhile enfant terrible of British Art, Damien Hirst.

This week I took my Graphics students along to the first major Scottish exhibition of works by Hirst (as part of the UK-wide ARTISTS ROOMS project, featuring works from the extensive d'Offay Collection of contemporary art). As well as Hirst there were Rooms devoted to Andy Warhol, Ellen Gallagher and Alex Katz. But the Hirst stuff was definitely the centerpiece, occupying the largest rooms and receiving most of the interest.

I lived in London during the late 90's - the Brit Pop / Cool Britannia heyday - and Hirst was always symbolic of everything that was embarrassing about those times. There is still something limp about his factory-based Warholian fakery, but this collection is genuinely compelling, and the passing of time has improved the contextual merit of the pieces.

The Hirst work includes an early spot painting, Controlled Substances Key Painting, 1994; the famous formaldehyde piece, Away from the Flock, 1995; the more recent triptych,2000; the butterfly diptych, Monument to the Living and the Dead, 2006; and a photograph, With Dead Head, 1981/1991. Also featured are a series of stark minimalist posters depicting pills, prescriptions and pharmacutical language laid out in laboratory-crisp typography.

The obsession with the pharmacological industry and its empty (but expensive) promises to cure society are brilliantly realised in the various media on show. The panels of pills in particular seem to draw you in for an unfeasably long time as you stare at them and muse on the prozac generation, the Thatcher banking boom and the rise and fall of Rave. Its a direct, minimal and clinical approach.

It was also obvious to the students that all the classroom talk of 'concepts' and 'visual clarity' werre perfectly illustrated by an Artist in full control of his ideas. And the reference points are not only obvious but the connections are actually fun to see (and more importantly, to discuss) - Mondrian, Duchamp and Warhol.

It helps that Edinburgh MOMA has some great space in which to view the works, and of course the other artists featured have plenty to offer. So go along and see it. Its free and its too good to miss.

The almost bellyache? The students' indifference to the permananent collection here - almost none of them made it upstairs to the Cubist and Abstract rooms, where the likes of Miro, Ernst, Picasso, Braque, and Mondrian can all be seen, as well as Magritte's surreal masterpiece 'Black Flag'.

Still, they have plenty of time to come around.