Hirst's First in Doha, Qatar - RELICS

(right) Unmistakable candy dots covering the exterior facade of Al Riwaq defines Relics and sets it apart from all other surrounding buildings. (left) One of Hirst's many dot paintings; each named after drugs.
It's easy to see why repeat rebel British art offender Damien Hirst commands the public's attention be it through thousands of flawlessly executed colored dots or in the most morbid production of animal carcasses floating within a formaldehyde tank. Hirst, the world's richest living artist, shows off 93 of his pieces in his first ever exhibition in the oil-rich Gulf country of Qatar. The "Relics" show located at the Al Riwaq space was unveiled with much pomp and pageantry in October 2013; attracting a crowd of who’s who of the art world including Jeffery Deitch, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles; and Alberto Mugrabi - notable dealer and collector whose family owns some 110 Hirsts. At first glance, the new uninitiated art visitor who has yet heard of Hirst might be led astray to assume that "Relics" is a show of vibrant positivity with the exterior of the Al Riwaq space plastered in aesthetically pleasing colored dots. But nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

Leviathan (2006 - 2013) A 22 foot shark in suspended animation. 
In the lobby of the "Relics" exhibition, guests are greeted with skeletons strung up from the ceiling ever so casually among plush seating. As expected, Hirst's obsession with death, dying, and explorations into mortality are quickly let known and unabashedly displayed starting with The Kingdom (2008) - a tiger shark set afloat in formaldehyde as if stuck in mid swim. Though surrounded by some of Hirst’s multi-colored, daringly playful dots in varying proportions, the shark held its own and even seemed eerily alive when viewed at certain angles. 

Skeletons a many beckon visitors.
The Kingdom (2008)
(right) Dead Head (1991) and (on left) Hirst's $100 million dollar diamond encrusted human skull in all its dazzling sparkle - For the Love of God (2007).
Early in his career, Hirst actively pursued death as his signature subject matter mostly as a means to face his own fear of death.  Aptly entitled With Dead Head (1991), the black and white photograph of Hirst who at that time was 25, posing with a severed head of a human cadaver captures Hirst’s youthful smile and contrasts it against that of the dead man’s lifeless face. It was as if at that exact moment Hirst had found his forte in all things macabre and dead.  Just how many variations of the image of death can Hirst conjure is the question many of us are keen to find out.

Mother and Child Divided (1995)
Close-up of the mother cow in Mother and Child Divided (1995)
Hirst’s Relics unfolds more like a museum of natural science than that of an art exhibition. His dissected cow and calf in glass tanks of formaldehyde – Mother and Child Divided (1995) is a notable display garnering the curiosity of young children and adults alike as they point and stare in a mixture of fascination and disgust. There’s a chilling difference in emotions when one views a cow splayed in a visceral cross-section for all to see rather than seeing it as a source of food.

Children staring down the oversized ashtray Crematorium (1996). Behind hang the spin paintings.

In “Relics”, there are pills, dots, shiny lab diamonds, flies both living and not, dead butterflies with wings separated from their “ugly” bodies, two very bedazzling diamond encrusted skulls,  and a host of dead animal carcasses submerged in formaldehyde including three sharks. Even the signature A Thousand Years (1990), a memorable and unmistakable Hirst is included in the show. The flies flown especially via Qatar Airways from Britain embark on a performance of their tiny fly lifetimes as they hatch as maggots, feast upon the blood of a severed cow’s head and finally die from being zapped by an insect-o-cutor machine. The effect is nothing short of ugly, rancid and somewhat gripping with the dead flies matted in cow’s blood and covering the ground like burnt ash. In the simplest sense, those flies detail what it means to live and die.  As with Hirst’s first foray with formaldehyde in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), that surreal and hair-raising tiger shark symbolic of 90s Britart, sparks the argument of what it means to capture life in something dead.

(right) The gold-plated Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain, whose modesty has been covered up by a leaf. (left) The stained glass effect made out of butterfly wings in Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007) 

There is an element of beauty found in Hirst’s butterfly paintings. The dead insects’ kaleidoscope wings are attached on to large canvases, forming collages of lavish patterns as seen in the triptych Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007). A thousand beautiful deaths immortalized in the complex construction of the stain-glass motifs.

There’s something clinical and precise with all of Hirst’s works. His multi-colored dots are technically complex to complete with each dot a different color and painted with machine-like quality. His clinical obsession takes full form in the display of an entire walk-through Pharmacy (1992). Floor to ceiling medicine cabinets line the room as if it were an actual drug dispensary. Perhaps the pharmacy was one step too far into indulging his obvious pharmaceutical predilections and unfortunately felt uninspired.  

Want to own a Hirst? The gift shop provides a neat selection from skulls to jewelry.
Hirst, 48, in recent years has been critically reviewed by some as over-produced, vulgar and unoriginal in comparison to his earlier more brilliant works. Current Hirst works are seen as repetitive and non-inventive. For the time being, Hirst's superstar status as a branded artist begs to defer as evidenced by the grandiose prices his works command. Examples being the pharmaceutically titled dot series which are individually priced between $800,000 and $3 million. Critics may cry foul at the stale and overworked impressions of death but no one can deny the influence Hirst carries in today's international contemporary art world.

Cafe banquet set against a backdrop of pharmacy medicine cabinets.
The brochure in Arabic and ticket stubs!
The Pursuit of Oblivion (2004) stops visitors in their tracks.
Catch Damien Hirst’s “RELICS” at Al Riwaq Exhibition Space, next to the Islamic Museum of Art, Doha from now until the 22nd of January 2014. Entrance is free.


Occasional hand model with a taste for adventure.

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