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In the darkest hour there may be light

April 14, 2009 by Fiona Hile

Fiona Hile reviews the exhibition of Damien Hirst's Murderme collection at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2007

Over at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, the potential for unalloyed joy is unnerving. In the darkest hour there may be light (Parental Guidance Recommended) features works from Damien Hirst’s murderme collection, a somewhat public ‘porn-under-the-bed’ stash of Hirst’s favourite artists. Upon entering the exhibition, victims and assailants alike are encouraged to warm their frostbitten faces in the ‘dirty pillows’ of a welcoming committee of wall-sized Page 3 beauties. Ricocheting like a ball in a pinball machine, we guide our two small children towards an assemblage of bleeding, resinous elephant flesh (John Isaacs), identifying the creature’s melting eye, mistaking the gelatinous form for a whale. Who said slaughter wasn’t sexy?

At the Serpentine the scent of the curator is strong. Sculpture, as a poet once said, is about making you want to touch something you’re not allowed to touch, and Hirst’s collective of under-aged geometrically-fringed sentries hover around us like body odour, simultaneously inciting and divesting us of our desire to make contact.

If an art collection is ‘like a map of a man’s life’, as Hirst has said, it’s not a guide that will get the visitor to anywhere (only a fool would follow another’s map), but is mostly geared, it seems, to getting you away and out. Sarah Lucas’s burnt-out 70’s BMW (No Limits!, 1999) has its front wheels up on ramps. ‘Why?’ my son wants to know. ‘I don’t know,’ I say, ‘Maybe it’s about to take off.’

‘Is this an artwork?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘Um …’

We inspect the vehicle in some detail, at a distance, of course, in order to keep the heavily curated student guards at bay.

‘Why is it all rusty?’

‘It’s about commodification, freedom and social decay.’

‘Where’s the steering wheel?’

‘Well, hmmm … let’s see.’

‘Look! Mum! It’s driving itself!’

Hirst’s babysitters are eerily absent as my son lunges at the gearstick.

I steer the child towards the comparatively innocuous painting of a woman going to the toilet, a familiar sight for a boundary-riding preschooler. It’s lovely, really. Restful. The picture’s boundary serves as the frame of the bathroom door, brush-strokes mimicking the corrugated glass, each mark differently shaded to create the woman’s form. The door is panelled, the eight panels sectioning off the woman in the manner of a grid, the kind that teaches drawing students how to disassemble figures and objects and put them back together again.

Back in the main room, my husband is holding our toddler up to an enormous aluminium half-balloon. Not even the pre-oedipal are safe. When our eldest was learning to talk, his word for balloon was the same as his word for breast. My ‘boons’ soon became ‘boondens’, then ‘bosoms’ until, finally, the connection was abandoned. The four of us stand in front of the shiny almost-orb, admiring our fish-eye reflections. A work of art, as Lyotard writes, can only become modern once it has been postmodern. The postmodern, then, is that which is registered in the process of being expelled.

Angus Fairhurst’s PietÀ  (1996) is at once evocative of Michelangelo’s famous depiction of mother and son and the lesser-known marble tomb erected in honour of the poet, Shelley, in which the tortured artist’s body is cradled in the arms of his somewhat healthier-looking wife. In Fairhurst’s photographic self-portrait the naked artist is cuddled by a figure in an enormous gorilla suit. Hirst has said that a great work of art ‘is like a joke with a punchline, a complete, whole, perfect cycle with nothing wrong with it.’ Gazing up at the four distorted images splayed across the adorable balloon, Hirst’s message becomes clear. It seems rude to linger, under the circumstances, and so, to the tangible relief of the bodyguards, we go out into the foyer, to struggle the children into unwanted coats and hats, and walk out into the cold.

Angus Fairhurst, Pieta, 1996, C-print, 248 x 183 cm, Copyright the Estate of Angus Fairhurst; courtesy Murderme, London and Sadie Coles HQ, LondonAngus Fairhurst, Pieta, 1996, C-print, 248 x 183 cm, Copyright the Estate of Angus Fairhurst; courtesy Murderme, London and Sadie Coles HQ, London

Sarah Lucas, No Limits!, 1999, BMW, Fibreglass and mechanical arm, 148 x 180 x 460 cm, Copyright Sarah Lucas; courtesy Murderme, London and Sadie Coles HQ, LondonSarah Lucas, No Limits! BMW, fibreglass and mechanical arm 148 x 180 x 460 cm, Copyright Sarah Lucas; courtesy Murderme, London and Sadie Coles HQ, London

John Isaacs, The Incomplete History of Unknown Discovery, 1998, Wax, resin, latex, stage blood, expanding foam, 3 (whale) pieces + video still (60 min DVD), Dimensions variable, Copyright John Isaacs, courtesy Murderme, LondonJohn Isaacs, The Incomplete History of Unknown Discovery, 1998, Wax, Resin, latex, stage blood, expanding foam, 3 (whale) pieces + video still (60 min DVD), Dimensions variable, Copyright John Isaacs, courtesy Murderme, London