Sunday, March 27, 2011

Damien Hirst: Memento Mori

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.  


  1. That first exhibit is pretty awesome: the juxtaposition of the high tech medical equipment with slaughtered carcass is very thought provoking. While we have all this technology, the driving force of this world is still organic.

  2. I don't like Damien Hirst. I think his art is amusing in a somewhat kitschy kind of way sometimes, but ultimately its all just a big scam. Damien Hirst panders to other out-of-touch wealthy people like himself who of course are the only people who can afford his ridiculously overpriced artwork. His wildly extravagant works only serve to further alienate the general public from art and confirm every one of the bad stereotypes of modern art. Compare his work to someone like Andy Warhol, who fully embraced the general public and not a single ounce of pretension, self-importance, or pandering can be found in either his work or his personal demeanor. I hate to sound as pretentious as the pretension that I am protesting against in Damien Hirst, but his work elicits strong feelings from me.

    That being said, I don't know that you can take a real artifact of violence like a human skull, put some diamonds on it, and call it art. My gut instinct tells me that a piece of art needs to have more of a distance from reality in order be art. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this though. Undoubtedly portrayed or fake violence has been a vital element of all forms of artistic expression since the beginning of history, but can something created from real violence be considered artistic expression?

  3. I agree that Hirst's work can be kitsch and vulgar. It does draw your attention, which is more than I can say for a lot of contemporary art. I don't believe he's just making art for the aesthetic factor, though. I think he's making a deliberate point with the diamond skull that humans will pour inordinate wealth into something that is literally dead. By setting ridiculous asking prices for his artwork, he is basically taunting the art world, and exposing its fickleness and pretentiousness.


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