Damien Hirst’s wide-ranging practice, including installation, sculpture, painting and drawing, is an exploration of the fundamental tensions and uncertainties at the core of human experience. Love, desire, belief and the struggle of living with the knowledge of death are all investigated, often in unconventional and unexpected ways. Consistently challenging the boundaries between art, science and religion, his visceral, visually arresting work has made him one of the leading artist of his generation.
Hirst is perhaps best known for his ‘Natural History’ series of works, which present animals in vitrines suspended in formaldehyde. These iconic sculptures, notably The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and Mother and Child (Divided) (1993), aim to recast fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the fragility of biological existence.
Hirst uses the vitrines as both a window and barrier, seducing the viewer visually while also providing a minimalist geometry to frame, contain and objectify his subject. He first constructed a steel and glass tank in the seminal work A Thousand Years (1990), in which a miniature lifecycle is created by flies hatching, feeding and then dying at the hands of an insect-O-cutor. In many of his other vitrine sculptures from the 1990s such as The Acquired Inability to Escape (1991) or The Asthmatic Escaped (1992), he implies a human presence through its absence, including relic-like objects such as clothes, cigarettes, ashtrays, tables and chairs.
Science and our unquestioning faith in the power of pharmaceuticals is one of Hirst’s most enduring themes. These ideas are investigated in the installation Pharmacy (1992) as well as in the ‘Medicine Cabinets’ and ‘Instrument Cabinets’ which display a cornucopia of reflective, precision-tooled surgical implements within steel and glass cases. Other sculptures play on a more celebratory aspect of the theme, such as Hymn (1999-2001), a polychrome bronze sculpture which reveals the musculature and internal organs of the human body as presented in toy-like anatomical models enlarged to a monumental scale.
In 2007 Hirst created what is arguably his most provocative work: For the Love of God, a life-sized platinum cast of a human skull, entirely covered by 8,601 VVS to flawless pavé set diamonds. Although without precedent in art history, the work operates as a traditional memento mori using an object to address the transience of human existence.
Hirst is equally well-known for his series of paintings such as the works with butterflies suspended in thick layers of gloss paint and the ‘Kaleidoscope Paintings’ where thousands of butterfly wings are arranged in mandala-like patterns. In the ‘Entomology Paintings’ from 2013, he revisits this subject matter again using butterflies interspersed with thousands of highly coloured insects and spiders to reflect the fragility of life. The corresponding ‘Entomology Cabinets’ utilise the same components but place them in precise horizontal or vertical rows inside minimal and reflective wall-mounted stainless steel frames. With each species arranged in separate rows, the overall effect is one of scientific ordering or industrial production, the former a reference to the Victorian era and it’s predilection for visual displays that reflected man’s control over nature.
In the ‘Spin Paintings’ series, Hirst uses a machine that centrifugally disperses the paint as it is steadily poured onto the canvas. The chance spontaneity of the spin paintings stands in contrast to the more formulaic ‘Spot Paintings’ series which have a rigorous grid of uniformly sized dots in different colours. Both series, however, suggest the idea of an imaginary mechanical painter. By contrast, in 2009, Hirst embarked on a series of paintings that represented a radical shift in his practice, returning to painting alone, and what he has described as, ‘the most direct form of production, with all the attendant artistic consequences: facing the canvas, the individual painterly act, the creative process, the artist’s emotional balance – alone; being at the mercy of issues raised by the picture, at the mercy of the creator, of oneself…’.
In 2017 Hirst presented his ten-year long project Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Examining notions of collecting and the mechanisms of art history, as well as human endeavour in the face of mortality, the project is realised through almost 190 separate works. These focus on a series of treasures and artefacts collected by the freed Roman slave Cif Amotan II, hauled from a ship wreck in the Indian Ocean which had lain untouched for 2,000 years. Weaving fact and fiction to create a labyrinthine narrative, Hirst combines valuable archaeological relics – some of which are so encrusted with coral and marine life that their forms are unrecognisable – with his own sculptures, documentary photography, video and drawing. The project highlights the power of myth, told through a hierarchy of objects that range from coins and plates to monumental sculptures, and serves to expose ideas of value and the mutability of history, belief and art itself.
Damien Hirst was born in 1965 in Bristol, UK. He lives and works in London and Gloucestershire. Solo exhibitions include Houghton Hall, King’s Lynn, UK (2018); Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy (2017); National Gallery of Art, Washington (2016); Astrup Fearnley Musset, Oslo (2015); Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (2013); Tate Modern, London (2012); Benaki Museum, Athens (2011); Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki, Greece (2011); Arken Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen (2011); Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy (2010); Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, Monte Carlo (2010); The Wallace Collection, London (2009); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2008); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2005); and Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy (2004). Hirst has participated in numerous group exhibitions including Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2016); Yokohama Triennale (2011); Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (2011); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008); ARC/Musée de la Ville de Paris (2007); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Australia (2007); MoMA P.S.1, New York (2006); Tate Britain, London (2004); 50th Venice Biennale (2003); and Tate Modern, London (2001). He received the DAAD fellowship in Berlin in 1994 and the Turner Prize in 1995.
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