Damien Hirst’s Greatest Hits

I was lucky enough to get an invite to an exclusive ‘pre’ preview of the new Damien Hirst exhibition that’s opening at Leeds City Art Gallery this weekend. It’s the first time such a collection of his work has been put together outside London and I have to say from what I saw last night, it’s pretty special.

The first thing that hits you is the vivid collection of ideas all in one place.

The first room we saw (with the exhibits still being constructed) was choc a bloc with some of the most audacious art created in the UK in the last 25 years. From a lamb in formaldehyde to Hirst with a corpse’s head, this room is full of some of the most iconic art ever seen in Leeds.

It almost feels like a big band playing Glastonbury – they don’t mess about with the latest album (OK, you might get the new single) but they concentrate on smashing it with all the big hits and this show feels like that. I concede we don’t quite get the big guns – no sign of the shark or diamond skull, but you get the crowd pleasers, no question.

You want spots? Check. Pickled animal in case? Check. Unsettling biological models? Check. Pharmaceuticals? Check. Skulls…the list goes on and it doesn’t disappoint. And even in this unfinished state it beguiled and there’s no denying the thrill of being up close to this art that we know so well.

There’s a lovely themed room around Hirst and Pierre-White’s doomed restaurant venture Pharmacy where the key elements that were taken out of the restaurant are installed together including the stunning neon signage and exquisite wallpaper – a room that will have every graphic designer within 50 miles salivating.

This wonderful event – organised by the rather fabulous Culture Vultures – was a low key evening where we were treated with a personal tour of the exhibition by Gallery Director Nigel Walsh where the background and context for each piece was discussed. Amidst the unopened packing cases and working gallery staff, this was a unique opportunity to see the art almost in a pure state. It lent a rather surreal atmosphere to Hirst’s work that needs no amplification.

I’ve dug out images of some of  the pieces you can expect to see when the exhibition opens later this week. It was a strictly no camera policy at the event – and trust me that took some discipline!

There’s talk of a ‘low key’ return to Leeds for Hirst at some stage, surely he’ll be pleased to see this stunning collection in his home city, in the gallery he frequented as a student.

Hirst’s work demands opinion and very quickly we got into the madman/charlatan/showman/genius discussion which I’m sure will be on the lips of everyone who visits. I think he’s all of these things and more besides – but there’s no denying the power of his work.

This is yet another fantastic exhibition in West Yorkshire in what is surely one of the best years for art with the Hepworth opening and the splendid Plensa at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

(All images courtesy of the wonderful world of Google Images, I didn’t take any of these at the event, promise)

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