OK, went for a belated spin round this exhibition this afternoon, Modern British Sculpture, during what turned out to be a rare hour of spare time in an insanely packed working week. (Good job I didn’t attempt to blog daily about it. It simply would not have happened, with three unexpected 6 Music breakfast shows, which had knock-on effects through my carefully planned days on Wednesday, Thursday and today, pushing their start-times back to around 10.30am and making me that bit more tired due to 5am wake-up calls. Not complaining about the work, mind you.) As I am a Friend of the Royal Academy – a yearly stipend that really pays its way if you ensure that you treat the place like a hotel and see everything that’s going – it’s nice to just pop in, without the pressure of having to squeeze every last drop out of your ticket fee. This latest blockbuster closes next week, so it’s last chance to see great, big things by Antony Caro, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Richard Long and other luminaries. Less of a pleasure to see this:
Entitled Let’s Eat Outdoors Today, it’s a typically striking Damien Hirst that’s typically concerned with death and decay and relies on shock value to make its point, and I object to it. I knew it was in the exhibition, but you always wonder just how cruel these “living” sculptures really will be in the flesh. And this one, a barbecue in two steel and glass cubes inside which hundreds and hundreds of flies are entombed, hits the spot. It’s revolting. It smells a bit. And if the hundreds of flies were replaced by, say, a single kitten, there would be outrage at its exploitative cruelty. But hey, it’s just stupid old flies, right? Pests. Insects. Irritating buzzing things that vomit on food. The effect is successful. You peer inside, wonder where the people have gone, try to work out how Hirst, or his helpers, managed to fill glasses of beer, say, or a box of mouldy marshmallows with layers of dead flies, upon which live flies alight and crawl, and you come quickly to the conclusion that they died as part of the show. It’s snuff art.
The “piece” is new, coined especially for what is otherwise a retrospective exhibition, but I guess Hirst installations are gifts that go on giving: you can rebuild them, and repopulate them with flies whenever and wherever you fancy. I am interested in what Hirst has to say, and I find his formaldehyde suspensions spooky and clever, but mounting dead animals is one thing, killing live ones to make a point is another one altogether. (If, by the way, you are offended by his shark and his cow and his sheep, I respect that, too.) I once saw a Hirst cube that had live butterflies in it. That I found gross too. It’s like the “entertainment” of tipping live insects onto celebrities in I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here: a number are bound to be injured or killed in the process, and humiliating Christine Hamilton or Gillian McKeith necessarily involves humiliating maggots and bugs and flies. I don’t approve. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why you’re allowed to do it, legally, never mind ethically.
I’m all for challenging art. I definitely approve of installation as a legitimate form of artistic expression. But when it involves killing living creatures – there’s even a fly “zapper” in one of the cubes, with a few carcasses stuck to its electrified bars like raisins – I squirm. I’ve read up on it, and it started out as some trays of live maggots, which turned into flies, which then die. It is a narrative. It is evolving art. It’s the circle of life, and says something about us being uncomfortable around dirt, while we all eventually go back to dirt. As I say, not the most profound thing ever thought of, but not stupid in its intent. Except in the act of turning insects into performing installations with wings, which crosses an unhappy line for me. (Mind you, I have been known to rescue flies from drowning. This is my curse.)
Still, I loved seeing Hepworth’s massive Single Form, Caro’s perplexing but pleasing Early One Morning, and Tony Cragg’s stupendous Stack, around which you could walk all day. I was also knocked out by the scale of Alfred Gilbert’s sincere Jubilee Memorial To Queen Victoria, which is a statue rather than a sculpture, and seemed out of place and all the more imposing in a gallery. Nice to take in these huge monuments at close range and in silence. I realise it is someone like Damien Hirst’s job to turn your head and put a pole in the spokes of a traditional gallery-grazing experience, and Let’s Eat Outdoors Today definitely does that. But there ought to be another way.