The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – Some Thoughts on Damien Hirst

As anyone living in London is undoubtedly well aware, the Tate Modern is currently running a Damien Hirst retrospective. Hirst is someone who practically plays up the con-artist persona, which makes it difficult to find depth in his work. It would be easy to write him off as a huckster, and even easier to merely pay lip-service to the ideas present in the work without really delving into them. However, art is what you make of it, and the only point in conceptual art is surely to facilitate conceptual exploration, so in the spirit of rising to a challenge, the following are a few (overly?) charitable thoughts I had about Hirst’s art. 

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

The centre-piece of the retrospective, both physically and conceptually, is undoubtedly Hirst’s shark, the namesake of this article. The shark, preserved and suspended in formaldehyde, has become something of an icon for Hirst. Initially, no doubt, the intended effect was to force a confrontation with fear; to stare death in the face, teeth and all. Unfortunately, walking into a room with the Physical Impossibility in 2012 is a lot like opening a birthday present that you’ve already taken a sneak-peak at: it’s hard to act like you’re really that surprised.

This shock-factor is just one of a variety of techniques that Hirst uses in order to try to hammer home his central insight: we are all going to die. At this point, it seems reasonable to question where the sense is in spending several hours wandering around an exhibition whose raison d’être is to drive home a banal platitude. Fortunately, there is an answer. Though we are surrounded by constant reminders of our own mortality, the problem (a bourgeois problem if there ever was one) is that we simply fail to take notice of them. By exploiting our desire to understand, Hirst desperately tries to break this spell; to try to overcome the Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Juxtaposition plays a central part in this process once the initial shock-factor is lost. In A Thousand Years we are presented on the one hand with the organic nature of death in all its putrid, stinking, rotting essence. Conversely, however, the flies remind us that death is nonetheless a physical process, both cyclical and continuous: the flies gain life from the death of the cow, reproduce, only to die and have the cycle continue once again in a new generation. However, in addition to the internal juxtaposition of decay and growth within the piece itself, A Thousand Years serves as a contrast for some of the other pieces, especially those of Hirst’s Natural History series. The joyful bleating lamb in Away from the Flock embodies the antithesis of the putrescent centrepiece of A Thousand Years, reminding us that death can be peaceful, painless and quick, if we are lucky. As the title aptly indicates, however, there is a distinct loneliness about Away from the Flock. In its raw physicality, A Thousand Years is, in an important sense, easier to deal with than the former, and grasping the reason for this is what takes us beyond banal platitudes and shock tactics into insights that go far deeper.

For one, there is an eerie un-death that cloaks the Natural History series; the animals are forever suspended at the point of departure, never quite managing to cross the threshold. Their often awkward and anthropomorphic postures only serve to increase this unease, implicitly alluding to the creatures’ roles as surrogates for a more explicit confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. Ultimately these pieces render physical the basic fact that many of us are afraid to confront: not just that everyone dies, but that everyone dies alone. Whether this is alone and blissfully unaware, like the lamb Away from the Flock, or surrounded by others all heading in the same direction, as in Isolated Elements, the fact is that from that point onwards we are extinguished, we remain suspended in time, experiencing nothing whilst the world continues on around us.

The Physical Impossibility itself – the centrepiece of this collection – equally serves a purpose deeper than mere shock value, for it makes explicit that which is common to all of the Natural History pieces. In death, Hirst has transformed these creatures into symbols indicative of mortality, but in life they stand as the epitome of creatures unable to comprehend their own existence, let alone inexistence, and it is in this respect that we are most similar to Hirst’s creations. The shark is a creature that needs to inflict death on others in order to survive, and the contrast of the shark with the rest of the pieces brings our similarity to this creature to the fore. 11 Sausages makes this analogy explicit by forcing us to recognise the sheer volume of death that we inflict on creatures like those preserved in the Natural History series simply to feed ourselves. Much like the shark we rarely, if ever, take a step back to reflect on the attitude to death – our own and others’ – that this behaviour conveys.

The sheer repetition inherent in Hirst’s art has drawn a lot of criticism; repetition both of elements within individual pieces and of pieces within collections. It would be easy to see this repetition as an attempt to recapture the initial intended effect, or more cynically as an attempt to cash in on a successful idea in lieu of original ones. No doubt there is some truth in both of these points, but the repetition also plays a more sincere conceptual role, filling a gap left over after the initial shock- and novelty-factor of some of the concepts wears off. Through this repetition, we move from the particular to the general, confronting one of the most difficult aspects of death to conceptualise: its sheer magnitude. The combination of The Acquired Inability to Escape, Crematorium and Dead Ends Died Out, Examined provides an example of how this repetition can help us transition from the individual to the multitude by building on a single motif.

In The Acquired Inability to Escape, we are presented with a table, chair and smoking paraphernalia enclosed inside a glass case. Again juxtaposition rears its head here too, as the table and ashtray are oversized, presumably designed for use by multiple people, though the table itself is accompanied by only one chair, one lighter and one packet of cigarettes. The overall effect is one of solitude and isolation, which is reinforced by the suffocating enclosure surrounding the entire ensemble. The casing itself is reminiscent of the Natural History enclosures, recalling the snapshot of the point of death preserved in those pieces.

Moving from this piece to Crematorium, we are confronted this time by the messy, reeking, filthy reality of death induced by cigarettes. Rather than the conception of death as eternal stasis effected by The Acquired Inability to Escape, we are forced to consider the entire life cycle of the deceased, and the process of life and death as decay. Crematorium is to A Thousand Years what The Acquired Inability to Escape is to Away from the Flock: the former impose the physical reality of the phenomenon of death upon us, the latter hint at the psychological solitude it carries with it.

From Crematorium we finally arrive at Dead Ends Died Out, Examined where the transition culminates in a consideration of the death of entire cultures and species. Not only are we naturally referred by each butt to the life of the individual who extinguished it, but the title and presentation of the piece deliberately invoke an analogy between each cigarette end and a specimen of an extinct species. Thus through the one motif of cigarettes, these three pieces take us from a snapshot of a single moment of an individual’s life to the extinction of hundreds of species. This transition ensures that the end result has more impact than a statistic or immediate confrontation with a pickled shark ever could.

This technique of internal and external juxtaposition lies at the heart of all of Hirst’s good works, including series like Medicine Cabinets and the Spot Paintings not detailed so far. Ultimately, all of the pieces serve to drive home the one simple fact mentioned at the beginning: everybody dies. Whether we go by cigarettes or by medicine, everybody goes one way or another.

So it goes.