More Life: The Work of Damien Hirst


                                  “Death is the mother of beauty….” -Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

            In London all conversations lead to Damien Hirst.  People always seem to know where he is, what he’s doing, where he’s going or even how he’s feeling. (Damien’s burned-out.” “Damien’s not seeing anybody.”) People who know him let you know they know him.  When a show he curated for London’s Serpentine Gallery traveled to Chicago last winter, more than a few Londoners told me they planned to go, one wryly explaining, “because I was summoned.”  In London, he is resident medicine man, instigator and star.

             In 1988, when he was 23 and a second-year art student at Goldsmiths’ (England’s Cal Arts), he organized an influential exhibition containing his own work and that of his friends, called “Freeze.”  Since then, Damien Hirst (it’s a great, exotic sounding artist’s name) has done more to reignite the British art scene than any other individual of his generation, while in the process raising more English eyebrows than any artist since Francis Bacon.  The London press can’t get enough of him – he’s everywhere – but the mass-media publicity has obscured his achievement somewhat.  For all the coverage he gets, surprisingly little of it actually deals with his work.

            Someone once said – I wish it had been me – “Everything changes but the avant-garde.”  The one sure sign that you were in the presence of avant-garde art, during much of the 20th century, was shock.  Shock is still seen as a shortcut to recognition, a way to get to an audience.  But shock has become a cliché.  More often than not it’s a dead end that leads outside the art world (where all it does is get headlines) while having little effect within the art world.  The big test for any artist who traffics in shock, then, is to ask whether the work leads anywhere.  Does it change your mind, does it open out onto other vistas of thought, is it transformative – or is it only shocking?

            Hirst uses shock almost as a formal element.  He’s worked with blood, rotting flesh, flies, maggots, dying butterflies, sawed in half cows and other dead animals.  For all the weird stuff he uses, his work is meticulously well-made.  It has an immaculate, trance-inducing presence about it.  His compositions tend towards symmetry, and things are always placed just so.

            There’s something outlandish and vexing about Hirst’s best work.  Certain other pieces which lack the outlandishness are merely decorative or inert.  For example, a 1993 wall piece titled We’ve Got Style, which features five shelves of colorful ceramic dishes, mugs and bowls encased in yellow wood and glass, looks and acts like a Haim Steinbach, relying on repetition and a snazzy optical presence.  The piece is derivative and dull.

            Hirst uses shock not so much to thrust his work in the public eye (although that’s where it keeps ending up) but rather to make aspects of life and death visible.  His 1990 work A Thousand Years has a good title – it signifies a lot of time, but not an eternity.  The piece consists of a large vitrine containing a rotting cow’s head, flies, maggots, sugar water and a bug zapper.  The whole thing is a life-cycle diorama-drama that continues to function to this day.  Generation upon generation of flies live, eat, reproduce and die (or are unceremoniously zapped) within this enclosed environment.  Given that the average life span of a fly is three to four weeks, there have been upwards of 60 generations of flies within the piece since 1990.  Hirst gets you thinking about time and the vast cycles of mortality going on not only within the sculpture, but all around us.  He gets you to think about the fact that of the five billion or so people now on earth, all will be gone within, say, 100 years.  That’s a big thought to have in front of a piece of sculpture.

            A Thousand Years arrived on a thinning British art scene with a real Nude Descending a Staircase bang.  I don’t know if it was the flies of the maggots or the cow’s head, but people went nuts.  As in most cases of succès de scandale, it’s hard to now see what all the fuss was about, but even if the piece has lost its initial nastiness it’s still quite effective.  What carries the day is the fact that you believe that Hirst believes the work is more than a shocking sight:  that his private need to see the piece and his infatuation with the cycles of life are the primary motivations for the work.

            There’s a sense of empirical wonder to Hirst’s work.  Consider the incredible sight, for example, of a 16-foot tiger shark suspended in a vast tank of greenish formaldehyde – his 1991 tour de force titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.  Hirst has a gift for language.  Some of his titles are like little haikus: “I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now,” or the simple but succinct “In and Out of Love.”  His titles tell you that Hirst wears his heart on his sleeve.  He wants you to know these are not jokes or sight-gags; he’s earnest.  There’s a searching quality about him.

            There’s a moment in the movie Blade Runner when Roy, the Nexus-6 replicant (a beautiful, nearly human android), finally finds the scientist-inventor who created him.  Roy asks what any of us might ask, could we confront our make:  why, after giving us life, do you have to take it away?  The slightly bemused scientist listens and then asks, “What seems to be the problem, Roy?” – to which Roy emphatically answers, “Death seems to be the problem! I want more life… fucker!”  In a nutshell, that’s what Damien Hirst’s work is all about – “more life.”

            Hirst thematizes the transience of life.  Indeed, he once said, “Art’s about life, and it can’t really be anything else.  There isn’t anything else.”  His sealed-up vitrine-as-mausoleums have a way of shifting our focus  from outer-world phenomena inward onto reflections about the self and its place in the outer world.

            He loves systems.  His 1993 installation of Pharmacy weaves together at least three of them: color, chemicals and life-and-death – the big overriding system.  The room-sized work is encircled by shelves contining row after row of brightly colored pill boxes: thousands of them.  When you red the labels, the pharmaceutical terminology sounds foreign and strange.  We encounter two systems at this point: science and language.  The names of these drugs conjure a vision of human misery and dread.  With every drug comes reference to a particular sickness, along with a list of side effects.  One drug, for example, carries the following (partial) warning: “blurred vision, change in color vision, headache, severe nausea, vomiting, ringing or buzzing in ears, itching, fever, wheezing… back, leg, or stomach pains, delirium, seizures, coma, cardiac arrest.”  These drugs form a kind of analogue of the mysteries of the human body and its vast and hermetic complexity – and the ever-present human desire to thwart disease and death in favor of “more life.”

            Similarly, Naked (1994), another vitrine piece, is filled with more than 150 surgical instruments and other spotless medical paraphernalia.  It evokes the queasiness one feels as one stands naked before one’s doctor, waiting for “the truth.”  Andy Warhol was so scared of hospitals (with good reason, it turns out) that he refused to say the word, calling it “the place” instead.  Hirst takes you to that threatening place.

            Since 1988 Hirst has been making an ongoing series of dot paintings that involve color systems.  He likes stylistically disjunctive things to exist side by side.  The paintings form a fascinating parallel to his sculpture, and provide an encoded window onto his thinking.  In the paintings, Hirst plays with rules and randomness by setting up an open, but highly structured, system.  All the paintings, whether eccentrically shaped, square or rectangular, have a regular grid of solid, arbitrary colored dots (they range from 1 to 4 inches in diameter).  Within any given painting, all the dots are the same size and none of the colors repeat.  The finished paintings are quite varied and intricate.  There are about 50 paintings in the series so far, and, since 1988, all the paintings’ titles are the pharmaceutical names of stimulants or narcotics.  Interestingly, the irregularly shaped works are named after controlled substances: Opium, Morphine Sulphate, D-Lysergic Acid.

            Though these paintings do not resemble his sculpture, they are not dissimilar in content: Hirst attempts to imbue abstract elements of painting with his sense of the awfulness or at least the arbitrariness, of life.  Here, a familiar form like Systemic Painting is run through with unpredictability.  The bright yet neutral colors are like the flies in A Thousand Years: every element affects every other part of the system, as chaos and order blur.

            Occasionally he brings painting and sculpture together, as in Waiting for Inspiration, Blue, 1994 (another lovely title).  Within a 7-by-7-by-7-foot glass cube, a 4-by-4-foot blue monochrome oil painting rests face up, on four metal legs.  There are round holes – barely visible – neatly cut into the four glass sides of the cube, and a bug-zapper suspended from the top of the transparent box.  As insects enter the enclosed environment and are zapped, they drop onto the painting’s sticky surface like so many arbitrary dots, lacing beauty with death.  Holes mean a lot to Hirst; they’re places where the outside can come in.  The zapper is to Hirst as the scientist is to Roy: something that kills without thought or choice or emotion – an inscrutable Terminator.  The allusion to “Inspiration” in the title is accurate insofar as the insects here are the animating force, the vital spark of the work.

            Another work from 1994, James (The Twelve Disciples), is from a 12-part series that has developed over several years, each component of which is named after a different disciple.  In these works, two old friends – death and religion – are brought together on two levels; one actual, the other symbolic.  In each work, a bull’s head rests in a smallish, white-framed glass tank of formaldehyde: here, the severed bull’s head stands in for St. James, the apostle who was beheaded (as were three other disciples).  Another work in the series represents St. Bartholemew, who, while off preaching in Armenia, was flayed alive and then crucified.  The tank holds the bull’s head named for Judas Iscariot is framed in black instead of white.  This series shows particularly clearly how, when Hirst finds something that works, he goes with it.  Violence and piety mingle with devoutness and iconoclasm in this sculpture-cum-reliquary-cum-science experiment that makes you wonder how much of Hirst’s Catholic upbringing is filtered into his work.

It looks like Hirst has learned a lot from Jeff Koons.  Like Koons, Hirst likes to suspend things in tanks, encase things, make them last forever.  Like Koons, Hirst is a great craftsman and a natural showman.  But Koons almost always dazzles.  There’s an incredible intuitive flair to his work – even his bad work.  Koons’s work is complex and elusive in meaning, whereas there’s a dogged explicitness to Hirst’s.  It seems to lack ease or flow or blind faith.  Hirst is less of an inventor and more of an entrepreneur – in the true sense of the word.  He brings things together: an endangered tiger shark from Australia, all those flies, the surgical instruments, whatever.  (He once said, “I spend most of my time on the phone, or going to people or getting certificates.”)

            He’s also a synthesizer of visual notions.  His sources and/or progenitors are as varied as Paul Thek, Andres Serrano, Herman Nitsch, Tosun Bayrak, Gordon Matta-Clark, even Arman.  Like Julian Schnabel, he has a big ambition and a way of being in the middle of things.  Unexpectedly, Hirst also sometimes brings to mind Joseph Beuys – the blood, the vitrines, the animals, the preoccupation with preservation, the charged subject matter.  Hirst’s penchant for affecting people outside the art world is something that he shares with Koons and Serrano and which keith Haring also possessed; of course, the grand daddy of them all in this regard is Warhol.

            Everything in Hirst’s work points to an artist who is more interested in meaning than in invention.  Hirst uses certain elements again and again; he’s always sifting through and recycling his own imagery and materials, and is developing in a majestic, meandering kind of way.  Hirst may lack a certain monastic, spirited dedication to a final goal, but that doesn’t stop him from being a compelling artist.