A queue snaked around the corner for Damien Hirst's show End of a Century on its opening day last Wednesday. The exhibition of his own early works is drawn from his own collection and on display at his own gallery, Newport Street Gallery, in South London.
That's a lot of "his owns" in one sentence, but Hirst has never done anything the accepted way and this continues to endear him to a wider audience that eludes most in the contemporary art world. In an act of what in the literary world would be considered self-publishing, Hirst has staged a retrospective of more than 50 works from his best period – his earliest, the 1990s.
Some of them are smashing and are reminders of how good Hirst is as an artist. The installations and found objects demonstrate his enduring fascination with death and the medical industry's attempt to ward off the inevitable. Stand-outs include the vitrine A Hundred Years (1990), in which maggots hatch into flies, buzz about and eventually die inside the enclosed space, forming a macabre accumulation in the vitrine. Other works, such as Waster (1997), a vitrine packed to the brim with disposable masks, read differently today, as face coverings have migrated from use within the medical professions to everyday objects.
Hirst's work isn't prescient with regard to the health industry: if anything, his ironic portrayal of all-powerful medicine – the idea that brightly coloured pills could save your life – feels like a hangover from the positivist days of the 20th century, when faith in science, authority figures and doctors reigned.
Hirst's fascination with animals also belongs to a time before animal rights became mainstream. In this sense, he is not only theoretically behind the curve, but literally playing catch-up. His exhibitions have been targeted by animal rights groups, such as when Italian activists dumped 40 kilograms of dung on the doorstep of his show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 2017. Hirst's legal standing in using animals and butterflies in his artworks also constantly shifts, as different specimens are put on endangered species lists that, in order to curtail demand, prohibit the works' exhibition and sale.
But in the realm of money, Hirst saw the tsunami coming. One of the most remarkable works here is the 1998 installation Art's About Life, the Art World Is About Money, a vitrine in which stuffed animals are arranged as at an auction, bidding for toy versions of works that were already renowned by the end of the century: a shark, a spot painting, a mini-Hymn anatomy replica. Hirst openly espoused the role of a businessman in his early commercial ventures, such as with his London restaurant Pharmacy and his current studio-production house Science, Ltd. This continued even when the money got real, although the stunts grew more cloying. With the diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007), he toyed with financial versus intrinsic value, pricing the work at £50 million ($64.8m), but freely advertising that it cost £14m to make. In 2008, rather than selling a show through his galleries, with which he would have to split the revenue, he sent it all straight to an auction at Sotheby's – an unprecedented manoeuvre.
Given Hirst's acumen, it's worth asking why he is sitting on these 50 works of his best period – a nest egg, perhaps? It's plausible that some of them are in his collection because they couldn't sell. Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded (1993), three vitrines that display a shark chopped into three parts and preserved in formaldehyde, was shown at Gagosian Los Angeles in 2018, but evidently returned to the UK without finding a buyer. In 2010, L&M Arts – now Mnuchin Gallery, run by the father of the current US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin – displayed a series of Hirst's medicine cabinets, including his first, Sinner (1988), and The Sex Pistols (1996), both on show here. Others were made in editions, such as Hymn (1999–2005), his bronze metal sculpture of a human anatomy science kit, one of which was bought by Charles Saatchi for £1m in 2000, with another edition on show here.
Although the general narrative of Hirst's career is that of the strong early period and a flooded market in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when he churned out spot paintings by the dozens, this show attests to his early propensity to wring as much as possible out of one idea. The flies work, for example, exists as both A Hundred Years and A Thousand Years, both made in 1990 – the major distinguishing feature being that A Thousand Years has a cow's head in the vitrine, presumably accounting for the 900 years lifetime spread between them.
The flurry of press coverage generated by the show, as well as its popularity among visitors in the middle of a pandemic, testify to Hirst's outsize artistic presence. End of a Century might be a blur of nostalgia or the artist re-setting the clock to the years when art was only about life – but it shows, despite itself, that Hirst always knew art was about money, too.