Monday, June 18, 2012
One of the best things about living in London is that world-class art comes through the city. Last year it was the da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery. This year it’s the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern. Most of my friends saw the Hirst exhibition right when it opened, but I forgot to get tickets. It made me sad until the Le Meridien Piccadilly hotel invited me to spend a night and enjoy a private after-hours tour of the Damien Hirst exhibition with the curator himself.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, nor would I have wanted to. I invited a friend, who arrived with me in the early evening to check into our room and begin what the hotel deemed our “Damien Hirst Experience”.
The room was spacious by London standards and had great contemporary decor. One wall had a large silvery map of the neighborhood with the hotel highlighted in red. Another had a tiny line of text that said “London is quite simply the theatre capital of the world”. A bathroom mirror featured a larger-than-life version of the Piccadilly Circus street sign painted on it. The bed was all white. The desk was all black. The chair was bright red.
I liked the room a lot. It had great style and the incorporation of local London elements was a nice touch. So were the gifts they left on the desk: a glass Damien Hirst-inspired skull filled with chocolate and a book about the exhibition at the Tate Modern.
But my experience at Le Meridien Piccadilly didn’t end there. It continued downstairs in the Longitude 0°8’ Bar, where my friend and I met the EAME Brand Manager and the PR for the hotel. Over cocktails, we learned about the Le Meridien brand and its focus on art. In addition to partnering with artists for the decor of the hotels, each hotel had a partnership with a museum in its home city. Guests were granted access to special exhibitions and the like free of charge.
Having stayed at Le Meridien hotels in Morocco, Senegal, Monaco, Spain, and France, I had already witnessed some elements of this. In Barcelona, for example, I had free access to the MACBA museum and its exhibitions just for being a hotel guest. In London the partner was the Tate, hence the Damien Hirst exhibition.
After cocktails in the bar, we headed upstairs to The Adams Room, where we enjoyed molecular gastronomy-inspired cocktails, Champagne, and canapes before sitting down to dinner with the other guests.
Dinner was seriously good. It started with seafood “Faberge Eggs”, which consisted of crab and lobster mousse with lobster bisque. They were followed by an herb crusted salmon ballotine with lemon and dill sauce. After that came a whole suckling pig for the table. It was served with sage stuffing, carrot and apple puree, black pudding, and caraway jus.
At the end of the meal, the chef surprised us with a giant tray of desserts. Among other sweets, it included chocolate mousse with salted caramel, chantilly-filled eclairs dipped in white and red chocolate, and tomato, chocolate, and caraway petit fours. In the middle was a white skull that the chef had constructed just for the Damien Hirst Experience.
After dinner we got as much sleep as we could before our 7:15am departure for the Tate Modern. When we arrived, there was a table set up outside of the Damien Hirst exhibition with a great breakfast spread. We ate our fill before joining the curator at the entrance.
He took us into the first room, which contained some of Hirst’s early works. Apparently the artist was embarrassed by them, but they were important precursors to the spot paintings for which Hirst is now so famous.
That room was followed by the one that everyone has been talking about. Yes, the one featuring the severed cow head with flies buzzing around it. Apparently we were lucky in that a fresh bovine head had just been brought in to replace one that had become a bit too gory even for Damien Hirst fans. Still, the noise of the flies and the stench of the animal made me wish I had skipped breakfast.
As we continued through the exhibition, there were sharks, sheep, and bisected cows in formaldehyde, butterflies on canvases and fluttering around rooms, and giant circles filled with dead flies. While thought-provoking, it was a bit unsettling, and made us wonder whether Damien Hirst would have been a serial killer had he not been an artist.
Apart from art that displayed his penchant for doing away with animals and insects, the exhibition included a number of Hirst’s famous spot paintings and many of his pharmacy cabinet works. It also had beautiful butterfly-inspired stained glass windows that showed Hirst’s rocky relationship with religion as well as a glittering room full of fake gemstones. They were my favorite parts of the exhibition.
But not all of the gemstones in the exhibition were fake. The last part of the exhibition that we saw was Hirst’s famous For The Love of God. Consisting of a platinum cast of a skull covered in diamonds, it was a stunning reflection on death, life, and luxury. I loved it.
Speaking of luxury, our luxurious stay at Le Meridien and our private after-hours tour of the Damien Hirst exhibition came to an end shortly after the skull viewing. We headed back to the hotel and checked out of our rooms, begrudgingly returning to reality.
But London doesn’t have a monopoly on good art, and I travel enough that hopefully it won’t be too long before I stay at another Le Meridien that offers access to another great museum. If it’s anywhere near as good as the Damien Hirst Experience at the Le Meridien Piccadilly hotel in London, the experience will be as priceless as For The Love of God.