‘Mandalas’ by Damien Hirst (White Cube, SW1)

This write up of ‘Mandalas’ by Damien Hirst at White Cube is going to be much more about the viewing experience, which, after all, an exhibition relies almost entirely on, rather than the work itself. I will of course still be describing the work because the nature of an artwork determines the way it is displayed. In these works, Hirst returns to one of his most well-known motifs, the butterfly. The mandala is a religious image that basically represents the universe in Hindu. Religion has, like the butterfly, played a huge part in Hirst’s success.

Hirst has used household gloss paint to complete the works, in some cases the paint acts as the glue fastening the butterfly wings to the canvas. The use of paint here begins to contribute to the viewing experience which is so important to this series. When I saw the images of the works online, I wasn’t overly impressed. They were beautiful, but not thought-provoking. The image I was looking at couldn’t capture the gloss of the paint and this is where I am reminded of Walter Benjamin and his theory on reproduction and the aura.

Benjamin said that an aura is a quality integral to an artwork that cannot be communicated through mechanical reproduction techniques, and in this case, you really need to see Hirst’s Mandalas in real life to begin to appreciate them as all their aura and mojo is lost in the reproduction on his website. To support this argument, aside from the paint, the works size is a huge factor. The biggest work, ‘Noble Path’ 2019, is sized at a gigantic 251 x 373 x 151 cm and the other pieces closely follow. The collages tower over me and soak up all my attention. The nature of the work, patterns in the form of a circle, is intuitively hypnotic which seamlessly relates to the origins of the work; in Hindu the mandala is used to aide meditation.

Of course, there are negative reviews which have some validity. For example, Eddy Frankel from TimeOut writes “The thing is, they’d be even more beautiful out in nature, attached to the bodies they grew out of. I don’t care about the use of insects in his art, I'm not offended, but he hasn’t improved the natural beauty of butterflies by putting them on a canvas.” However, I’m sure Hirst hasn’t had them killed specifically and is instead using a butterfly’s body having died from natural causes in a beautiful, resourceful way.

Ultimately, as I said earlier, these works don’t do much for me, however the way they have been displayed is noteworthy. To take it a step further, it would be nice if Hirst never had them photographed, and even put an anti-photography regulation on the works. In this way they would have been able to keep some of the aura Benjamin speaks about and furthermore some of the sacred connotations of religion from which the works originally derived from.