I will start by saying that Hirst is my favourite artist precisely because he explores impossible concepts (in my opinion) in very outrageous ways. It has to be said that I haven’t been to a Damien Hirst Exhibition before. Instead, Hirst’s art has just cropped up (pardon the pun!) here and there throughout my life thus far.
For me, the most thought-provoking works are Hirst’s Natural History series. I encountered ‘A Thousand Years’ (a life cycle of a housefly) when I was around 12 years old. The installation consists of 2075 x 4000 x 2150 mm glass vitrines, made with steel & silicon rubber frames and divided into two separate parts. Inside the container, there are four holes allowing the flies to move from one area to the other. There is also a fly production zone where numerous maggots develop into flies, and even a zone that contains meat from a cow’s head. There are two zones, essentially providing sustenance for life and a fly killer resulting in death.
It brought two things to mind; firstly, at a zoological level, Hirst was showing the simple life cycle of a fly. Secondly, he was (in my opinion successfully) exploring the concept of life and death, portraying a real-life scenario in a created space, where the work was always changing as the flies moved and eventually died.
In essence, the art here was the flies’ death. I think this poses an ethical problem, for however much we may view a housefly as insignificant, it still begs the question: should animals be manipulated for the sake of art? Additionally, have we taken animal exploitation to new heights by celebrating this kind of work?
When raising this issue, I won’t be surprised if the common house fly fails to tug at your heart strings. So, what if I said that for Hirst’s Fish in a Formaldehyde Tank commissions, twenty-seven Tiger Sharks were killed? Bear in mind that these sharks have a conservation status of ‘Near Threatened’. Now, I’ll ask you the question again: can Hirst justify using animals in the Name of Art?
It is easy to skirt over these issues when we consider that Hirst’s shark tank installation ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ is viewed as one of the most iconic images within contemporary art. Likewise with the fly installation. Hirst was a revolutionary for his time, as seen when he explored death and its presentation within a gallery setting. Although the shark was isolated from its natural habitat, the ocean-coloured formaldehyde alluded to reality and became “real enough to frighten [the viewer]”. The natural and unnatural are conflicting binaries in this work as the illusion of reality was necessary to scare the viewer.
The idea of death is also explored through intimacy and action. The viewer’s proximity to this creature would have resulted in death in reality, and its open mouth signifies the moment of attack. The unnaturalness of Hirst’s work is the way that he captures a moment frozen in time. This reversal of roles creates a virtual-reality as the dead predator becomes the prey and the viewer remains safe. By using the animal in this context, the installation has more impact because it plays psychological games in the mind of someone living – the viewer. It seems that Hirst had good reason to use the real predator when exploring the idea of death, and some may say that this is enough to justify the exploitation of animals in the name of art.
If you want my opinion, considering that each new installation of the shark series required individual sharks, and that Hirst’s shark installation was commissioned twenty-six times, I feel that this piece of art is unjustifiable purely because it is a consequence of our dislocated-from-nature, consumerist western culture. Maybe, however, Hirst is highlighting this as well and challenges society by emphasising its flaws.
Now, that’s something to think about.
Words by Cecily Rainey
Cover image: Damien Hirst ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ 1991
A Thousand Years – http://www.damienhirst.com/a-thousand-years
Shark Tank – http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of