The emperor’s courtiers and forebears

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There was a brief period, in the early 1990s, when Damien Hirst was the most interesting artist in the world. With his animal vitrines such as “A Thousand Years” (the rotting cow’s head) and “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (the shark), he made a brand-new, mad-new, brave-new variation on the great theme that had preoccupied artists from Giotto to Warhol: that art exists only because death exists.

Like all significant artists, Hirst both emerged from and crystallised his times. In images, materiality and bravura display, no work embodies better than his Natural History series the late Thatcher era’s brutal, punky glitz and its undertow of vulnerability. This series is truly an icon of that epoch, and it is surely not chance that Charles Saatchi, the entrepreneur who propelled Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street, also orchestrated Hirst’s rise as emperor of Britart.

Icons, however, are not enough: emperors also need subjects, followers, a court. Thus it was that Hirst’s fellow Goldsmiths students morphed into the Young British Artists, and London became the centre of the art world for the first time in history. It continues to live off that legacy, and for this reason alone the show In the darkest hour there may be light, a selection from Hirst’s own “murderme collection”, amassed since the late 1980s and now shown for the first time at the Serpentine Gallery, is a must-see event.

As you would expect, it is an exhibition about death, about the body as so much flesh and meat, skull and bones. What artist collects other than to refract his own vision? Although no work by Hirst is included, his shadow falls long on the most visually arresting, clever works by his contemporaries here. Steven Gregory’s 2003 series of twinkly human skulls embellished with malachite, lapis lazuli, gold teeth, blue and green resistors and pop titles (“Strut my Stuff”, “Where’d You Get Them Peepers?”), for example, or John Isaacs’ “The Incomplete History of Unknown Discovery” (1998), where you walk around fat slabs of whale flesh constructed from wax, resin, latex and stage blood to be confronted with a large, observing, thinking eye, take you straight back to the theatrically baroque, mannered nature of Hirst’s own meditations on consciousness and mortality.

These, however, are the highlights: nothing else approaches the perfect-pitch imaginative directness of Hirst’s own early 1990s work. The only YBA who ever rivalled Hirst for emotional immediacy was Tracey Emin, but her works here – a neon sign reading “Every Part of Me’s Bleeding”, a pallid patchwork called “It Always Hurts” – are poor examples of her confessional style. And almost everyone else among Hirst’s predict-able, mediocre followers makes you want to weep with weariness: Angus Fairhurst’s “Pietà”, a photograph of a dying man clasped by a gorilla in a minimalist interior; Michael Joo’s leather-wolf-seal-rubber playing-dead prostrate figure “God II”; Marcus Harvey’s blurry paintings behind glass, “Skull” and “Jess on the Toilet”; Gavin Turk’s painted bronze sleeping-bag “Nomad”.

Alone among Hirst’s generation to show originality here is the pop-minimalist Jim Lambie, a Glaswegian outsider, whose giant, multicoloured, painted-mirror “Byrds” (2005), with paint spreading on to the floor and the creatures’ sinister, black, blotchy alter egos filling the walls, inject welcome razzle-dazzle into a show that is extraordinarily short on aesthetic pleasure.

As a YBA showcase, the Serpentine confirms what Tate’s dreadful Fairhurst-Lucas-Hirst exhibition In a gadda da vida of 2004 suggested: that even in their heyday Hirst’s Britart courtiers could not match him, that their work has aged badly and that they are now creatively bankrupt. Of no one is this truer than Sarah Lucas, by far the best-represented artist here. From “Au Naturel” (1994) to “Pearly Bunny” (2003), the single idea that made her name – a deconstruction of the female nude via melon-boobs, chicken knickers, stuffed tights shaped as bunny girls – is regurgitated in every room. Ten years on, it reads as no more than a rant, whose ladette machismo language offered radical thrills without the threat of visual seduction to a 1990s feminist thought-police. Yet Lucas’s dreary conceptualism frames this show, which opens with “Seven Up” (1991), her critique of tabloid sexuality via a blown-up spread of seven nude photographs, and closes on the lawn outside with a new piece, “Perceval”, a life-scaled model of a carthorse lugging a pair of outsize phallic marrows. Like the vainglorious, colossal bronze “Madonna” that Hirst planted outside the Royal Academy this summer, Lucas’s work gets bigger, louder and clumsier as she has less and less to say.

So much for the courtiers. An emperor also needs ancestors, and one as rich as Hirst can afford to buy them. Jeff Koons’ Plexiglas consumerist satires are an obvious choice: “New Hoover Celebrity IV and Quik Broom” and “New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers” line up behind Lucas’s vacuum cleaner enhanced with cigarettes and bras, “It Sucks”, while Koons’ three-metre chromium/stainless steel “Moon (Yellow)” casts a banal sheen over the central gallery. It too sucks in, in reflection, everything around it, and depends on its audience for the images that flit across it: a symbol of the hermetic, tail-chasing nature of expensive, monumental contemporary conceptualism.

The most expensive work in the show, however, is the greatest and the oldest: Francis Bacon’s 1943-4 “Study for a Figure at the Base of the Crucifixion”. At the private view, while Hirst lolled in the back of Lucas’s doorless BMW with its wanking robot hand, “No Limits”, and a train of acolytes muttered about sophistication and playfulness, this magnificent painting of physical and mental torment, hanging above the car, was mostly ignored, but certainly Hirst’s ability to cast today’s flesh as tomorrow’s carcass links him to Bacon. On the other hand, his famous divorce between artist and made object and his factory of employees make him a descendant, too, of the late 20th century’s other great death-merchant, Andy Warhol. To add to Warhol’s classic of American mortality, the car crash of “Five Deaths”, Hirst recently bought “Little Electric Chair” (“I fucking need one of those” he said on buying it) with the title of this show in mind – the sparks of electrocution suggesting the light in the darkness may be deadly.

In fact, “In the darkest hour there may be light” is a quotation from Hans Christian Andersen, another artist obsessed with death and morbid endings, and the title emphasises the Victorian feel of this show: its narrative impulse, melodrama, bric-à-brac randomness, its suspension between traditional realism, pricey kitsch and Gothic horror. Britart, of course, had its roots in Thatcher’s Victorian values, Hirst’s Natural History vitrines brilliantly referencing 19th-century cabinet-of-curiosity curating through late-20th-century science. These elements will no doubt come to the fore when Toddington Manor, the artist’s Victorian Gothic mansion in Gloucestershire, becomes a permanent museum. This taster indicates that it will be for its insights into the landscape of Hirst’s mind, rather than for any highs in art history, that Toddington will be worth a visit.

‘In the darkest hour there may be light: Works from Damien Hirst’s murderme collection’, Serpentine Gallery, London W2, to January 28. Tel +44 20 7402 6075. Sponsored by Hiscox

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