Some artists are notoriously controversial in whatever they do, be it their artwork itself, or the way they interact with the public. Damien Hirst appears to have both of these areas covered, and this is his selling point.
Before I saw an exhibition of Hirst’s work, I am happy to admit that I wasn’t a fan, as I felt that his work was quite crass and showy. My opinion changed on actually seeing the work. There is something about walking between a cow that has been cut in half, with a calf in its gestation period. It speaks on another level about the fragility of life. There is also something visually pleasing about seeing lines of pills put into size and colour order, but Hirst regularly comes under fire for his approach to art and the messages that he is sending, as well as issues with the physical exhibits.
By far the most controversial exhibits for Hirst are the ones which use of animals and insects. It was estimated by Artnet in 2017 that a total of 1 million creatures met their artistic end at the hands of Hirst. This isn’t to say that he went about killing things just to pop them in formaldehyde, as some of the animals were already dead before they made it in to his exhibits, but many insects died as part of the exhibits themselves, which will always raise more than an eyebrow with people who have the rights of the creatures at heart.
Hirst won the Turner prize in 1995, with an exhibit which contained “Mother and Child, Divided”, which shows a cow and a calf cut in half. Death, life cycles and religion are themes that permeate Hirst’s work, which can perhaps, be lost in translation when you are met with cut up animals.
On accepting the prize, Hirst comment was “It’s amazing what you can do with an E in A-level art, a twisted imagination, and a chainsaw”. Unfortunately, I think it is this type of arrogance, which can make Hirst be so unappealing to many. Perhaps if he had talked about the use of the cows and how they are now captured artistically, giving them an immortality, and how they represent the life cycle, audiences might have warmed up to him, but he focused on his own ability to succeed despite his past failings.
A precursor to the cut-up cows was the tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde – “The Physical Impossibilities of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. The tank that the shark has been set in gives the illusion that is has been cut into three sections due to the way the tank has been designed. The shark shows signs of degradation which Hirst states is the “decaying process”. While Hirst feels that this piece explores the fears of death by presenting the audience with something that is frightening, dead, but looks alive; giving the feeling that the creature isolated from its natural habitat embodies the way in which humans shy away from death being a natural part of life; animal rights saw this differently as the shark was hunted for the piece, putting Hirst in the lime light for animal cruelty though his art.
While this is something on a grand scale that tilts the scale for Hirst in the controversy polls, his work prior to this could be deemed equally cruel, depending on how much you like flies.
In 1990 Hirst created two pieces of work, which were originally shown in a warehouse, but I have also seen this set up in the Tate since its original construction. “A Thousand Years” and “A Hundred Years”, both concentrate on the life cycle of the fly. A tank which has been split in half – one side has a cube in which newly hatched flies emerge and can fly through holes which have been added to the partition in the tank. In “A Hundred Years” there is an electric fly killer and the corpses of the flies mount up as the exhibition runs, in “A Thousand Years” the addition of a cows head in to the partition where the fly killer is, so those who don’t die can reproduce, lay their eggs in the head of the cow and then die, so that the life cycle continues, further exploring the life cycle.
This sounds pretty gory in theory, but visually (and I can speak from experience) it repels the audience as neither cows head, or mounting dead flies are particularly beautiful, nor are they things that the audience will associate with on a particularly familiar level.
An estimated 850,000 flies (111 generations) died in the showing of these pieces.
Other creatures have also met their doom in Hirst’s displays including butterflies, pigs, sheep horses which have been made to look like unicorns, birds, a zebra, a bear and fish, nothing is beyond the realm for Hirst and while most would have died prior to the artwork, I can’t really get on board with killing in the name of art in this era.
The formaldehyde tanks come under criticism on a fairly regular bases, with reports of leaks of gas coming from the tanks to unsafe levels for visitors, although these usually get retracted quite quickly.
In 2017 at the opening of “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi was hit with 88 pounds of manure from Animal Rights activists, 100% Animalisti. They had written a message for the artist requesting that he “Go Home” in the manure along with “Here is my piece of art work”. This exhibit hadn’t opened at the time the manure was placed and little was known about it apart from 2 brief promotional videos which showed “treasures” being plucked from a coral reef. This was the first show in Italy for Hirst in over 10 years, but some were not so happy to seem him back. The group put a statement on their own website saying that they wanted to make it clear that they were against Hirst and anyone who supported him due to his use of animals in his pieces.
This type of reaction is something that Hirst would be used to receiving, and not something that particularly plays on his conscious, as he is deemed one of the richest living artists, placing 238th on the rich list in 2009 with a net worth of £235 million. He is still claimed to be the richest British artist.
Hirst has created some beautiful pieces which explore human mythology, religion and death without the use of animals, but these are the works which shot him to fame and also created the rift between his audiences and his work, which I believe could have been less traumatic should he have taken a different approach to how he speaks about the pieces. With comments such as “we all look the same cut in half”, it doesn’t ooze respect for the dead that he is immortalising.
Personally, I can almost get on board with what Hirst’s theories are (if I don’t read about what he has said about them, but more someone in his marketing teams’ spiel about it), as it harks back to a Victorian ethic of displaying animals, and the shock factor which they sought out in things such as freak shows. There will always be an audience for something that shocks, whether they are repelled, upset or in awe by the display, but there is an arrogance which penetrates from his personality into his artwork which I really struggle with, which is why I had difficulty appreciating his art before I saw it in the flesh.
Am I for killing animals in the name of art? No, I am definitely not. Do I think it is now too late to take back anything that was created nearly 30 years ago therefore should these animals be appreciated for the beauty that they are and the fragile state they stand for? Yes. There is no point in protesting these pieces, they are already made, and the deed has been done, although I don’t approve of allow Hirst to fish or hunt anything else should he feel the urge and feel perhaps he should be held to account for this should he chose to do so.
Ultimately life is precious and short, which Hirst tries to bring to the forefront, regardless of religion or belief death is the final destination, but how you chose to accept that is only down to you as the individual.
Usually I can take an unbiased view to the scandals I write about, but there are somethings which I morally can’t agree with in Hirst’s work. It is true that art should provoke, but Hirst’s name is now synonymous with arrogance and animal savagery in art.