Of all the works to arouse controversy in the history of the Turner Prize and indeed British art of the 1990’s Damian Hirst’s Mother and Child, Divided wins hands down. The work, which inspired controversy when included as part of Saatchi’s Sensation and in 95 as part of Hirst’s Turner Prize exhibition is back at Tate Britain once again to remind us what all the fuss was about.
Having never physically encountered this work before I felt it my duty to go in search of what lies behind the furore that encapsulates a generation and has come to constitutes something of an art-world urban myth. Indeed the majority of press that surrounds this recent retrospective all talk of Mother and Child, Divided as something of a long lost treasure restored in to its rightful position or as the jewel in the crown of the Turner Prize so far. However, the reviews also seem to be tainted with the sensation that enwrapped the critics and new art savvy audiences of the mid-1990’s.
On entering the exhibition, I was of course conscious that I would soon have my first encounter with this work. Although interested by the others works on display (10-years worth), I was anxious to get to this piece and hopefully closer to understanding the notoriety that surrounds it.
When finally I reached the room I was surprised by the lack of shock that took place. Of course I had to wait my turn to see the piece, as it was being inspected by another group of people. I patiently waited my turn for an encounter I had long awaited. Finally it was my chance to be alone with the work; I got close and examined it. Rather than the disappointment I had half expected owing to the fact I didn’t believe the work could quite live up to the expectation that preceded it, I was more fascinated by the work than I had anticipated.
As I walked along the passage created by the cow encasing vitrines I was amazed by the animals’ tactile quality. Despite being preserved in formaldehyde for over a decade there remained a sense that it would still be soft to touch. Not just the animals’ fur but also its innards, I looked on like a fascinated student, longing to know each organs function and trying to locate the different cuts of meat. I was also struck by the sense of fragility the large animal exuded; visible amongst the vast internal organs were delicate bones, a vertebra so delicate it looked impossible of supporting such a beast. Also prevalent was the craftsmanship involved in presenting this creature in such a way, Hirst stated in his acceptance speech ‘It’s amazing what you can do with an E in A-level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw’, however the animal bears no marks of chainsaws, instead it portrays careful work undertaken in a respectful manner. Not many people can understand the sense in sacrificing an animals’ life in the name of art, however when it is done with this level of compassion it is perhaps worth questioning what governs our understanding of aesthetics and morals.