I recently had the opportunity to attend Damien Hirst's “Forgotten Promises” exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong. Hirst is perhaps best known for his piece “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, a shark submerged in a tank of formaldehyde. That iconic piece of British art sadly was not on display at the Gagosian. In Hong Kong, Hirst presented his piece entitled For Heaven's Sake for the first time ever. It is a platinum cast of a human baby skull with more than 16,000 diamonds embedded in it. There is something inherently violent about the death of an infant, and celebrating it by adorning it with such excess is macabre, to say the least. Hirst said, "Diamonds are about perfection and clarity and wealth and sex and death and immortality. They are a symbol of everything that's eternal, but then they have a dark side as well." For Heaven’s Sake was a promising introduction to the exhibition, but most of the other pieces in Forgotten Promises are just very detailed renderings of butterflies that he calls the Butterfly Fact Paintings. Hirst wanted to communicate the fragility of life. In an interview with Asia Tatler, he said that we can no longer trust the fleeting nature of photography, and we’ve regressed to trusting paintings to give us the truth again, for painters give images more weight.
As beautiful and precise as those paintings were, I wish I could have seen one of Hirst’s more controversial, grotesque installations, such as what he did in Lever House a few years ago. NYTimes has an article about the exhibition: “Lining the entire lobby will be some 15 medicine cabinets (a past theme for Hirst) filled with thousands of empty boxes and bottles with labels for antidepressants, cough medicine and other drugs. The 30 sheep are lined up in row after row of formaldehyde-filled tanks, evoking docile schoolchildren in a classroom. Submerged in a giant tank 12 feet, or 3.7 meters, tall are two sides of beef, a chair, a chain of sausages, an umbrella and a birdcage with a dead dove.” All of these random but monstrous elements of daily life thrown together in a jumble remind me of the aesthetic of Lara Glenum’s Maximum Gaga. The abject nature of sheep “frozen” in time being placed next to processed meat, the notion of repetition, and the pervasive sense of the grotesque are all evocative of Act II of Max. Gaga, where humans are no different from bovine, submissive machines.