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  • Breaking the Myth: @LeedsArtGallery Curator’s Talk on #DamienHirst

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    July 14th, 2011mardixonCulture

    The Damien Hirst exhibition is another wonderful creation made available with the help of the Artist Room.*

    The curator’s event I was invited to allowed the group to view the Damien Hirst exhibition before it opens. Having the curator describe the pieces and the ethos behind the collection was extremely beneficial.

    The Artist Room collection consisted of only five pieces. However, the exhibition spans over three rooms as Damien Hirst, not involved with Artist Rooms, agreed to contribute for this exhibition. (Damien, while born in Bristol was schooled and trained in Leeds. ) This is the first time an artist exhibited in a public art gallery, got personally involved. The first challenge was working with everyone involved to make it work.

    Leeds Art Gallery

    Both curators, Nigel Walsh and Sarah Brown shared their feelings and thoughts about the exhibition while allowing us to form our own opinions along the way.  The first room we were invited to was probably the most controversial. I have never seen a Damien piece ‘in real life’ and have tried my best to not let others opinions affect mine.

    When I first walked into the room, my eyes were immediately drawn, not to the infamous sheep in formaldehyde, but to the marble statue which I only briefly saw from the back and looked completely out of place in this exhibition.

    Nigel brought the group to the back of the room to start with 1991 work ‘With Dead Head’ which was essentially Damien posing with the head of a cadaver. Shocking? Controversial? Perhaps, until you hear the background. Damien took the picture at Leeds Pathology when a student – not the morgue as is often rumoured. Legally, artists are allowed to apply to work with cadavers even today. Another myth associated with this photo is the assumption the dead man’s family might randomly see the piece and become upset. The truth is the man donated his body to science and is still (at least up until recently) at the Pathology department.

    Armed with this information, and probably due to thinking the head looks like something Madame Tussauds  would create, the picture was less controversial. I started looking at the expression, appreciating the art, and not the horror.

    The next item was two large skulls on black canvas. Instantly I was reminded of Andy Warhol’s piece, Skull.   At that point, Curator Sarah explained how Damien seems to be almost obsessed with life and death, a similar theme Anthony d’Offray mention in his discussion about Andy Warhol at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s Artist Room in 2009.

    This lead nicely to ‘Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology 2000’ – a three piece structure of White medical cabinets filled with medical teaching aids for doctors (some of which were hand painted). This piece shows the importance of science for artists as they often use the teaching aids to assist with drawing anatomy (this also is the reason they sometimes apply to work with donated cadavers).  See how things start to become less controversial and sensualised and more about the art?

    Next item:  ‘Away from the Flock’.  Another very controversial piece. However, the more you look at the sheep, the more the expressions and animation of this piece comes to life. There seems to be a slight smirk showing on the mouth, with the hoofs positioned as if searching for it’s mom. The body’s covering, while not curly as most sheep, has a mother-of-pearl tinge to the fluffy soft looking wool. Nigel stated it takes methodology from science and natural history and turns it into art and that really summed this piece up for me.

     An interesting curator point was highlighted when Nigel explained how the sheep travels separately from the cube display we see it in. This highlights the curator aspect of why installations of certain pieces require several days. In this case,  there is a specialist that needs to come in to remove the sheep from the travel case filled with formaldehyde, position it into the actual displayed case used ensuring the position is as required then fill with formaldehyde. It is a tediously painfully slow process.

    Also within this main exhibition room were the infamous Butterfly pieces. One was from 2007 ; a rather large circular piece with a powder blue background. The centre a bright yellow gorgeous butterfly instantly draws the eye. It is surrounded by different layers of outer circles of butterflies and various pieces of them all skilfully placed Colorado coordinated to ensure symmetry.

    The other Butterfly piece ‘Monument to the Living and the Dead 2006’ was less exciting for me. It was one panel of black and one panel of White with dotted butterflies. They are both set within large frames which curator Sarah Brown explained were added by the Tate.

    Taking up the majority of the right wall was a piece called Painkiller, owned by Anthony d’Offray. It is three light boxes which show white pills and was originally made for a restaurant called Pharmacy which was part owned by Damien and Matthew Freud.  The Royal Royal Pharmaceutical Society initially caused an issue for the restaurant, claiming people would think the restaurant was a pharmacy. They played around with the name and came up with a few anagrams such as Army Guy but eventually decided on renaming it ‘Pharmacy Bar and Restaurant’.

    My absolute favourite piece in this room, and probably the entire exhibition, is called ‘Anatomy of an Angel’ which was the statue I originally saw from the back when I first walked in. As you see the front, you start to notice this gorgeous piece is actually something it shouldn’t be. Yes, it is a rather large marble sculpture that looks like it belongs in any art gallery or museum. However as you look at the face, you suddenly realise that half the face is showing without skin as if a line has been drawn and the anatomical learning aids we seen in the Trinity is being used as reference for this dominating sculpture. As your eye moves down, you also notice more of the same skin being ‘removed’ from the right breast to the stomach, the left thigh and the right foot. The ability to create such a provocative piece, for me, is where you can see the real artist come to life. Controversial?  Like the sheep or the photograph? Perhaps not, but definitely a thought-provoking piece that forces you to search every inch to see what else you can learn from her. Damien created this from one piece of marble (probably with the assistance of computers) in Italy in 2008.

    The second and third rooms were all about the Pharmacy with the one exhibition room being a replication of the infamous restaurant complete with Silver Pharmacy Wallpaper (2004).  Although the two rooms were not completed in time for the visit, it will be completed in time for the opening.  Other items within these two rooms include:

    The Pharmacist’s Creed  1997-8

    Grey Periodic Table 1997-2004

     

    I was very impressed with the vastness of the collection and the clear knowledgeable detail that had  gone into this exhibition.  While all art galleries ensure exhibitions are presented with care, the curators, and the team involved, provided a tremendous exhibition experience. Each piece used is positioned strategically, lending itself to the story the art provides.

    A must see exhibition for 2011. Thank you Culture Vulture for allowing this event to happen.

    Although the exhibition is free, please support the gallery with a donation.

    ARTIST ROOMS is an important new public collection of international contemporary art, shared across the UK through a unique collaboration between The Art FundTate and National Galleries of Scotland.  Assembled by collector and curator Anthony d’Offay over a 30 year period, it comprises over 700 works, and takes the form of 50 rooms by 25 artists, including Diane Arbus, Joseph Beuys, Vija Celmins and Damien Hirst.

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