Damien Hirst: Revisiting the Life Cycle...

By Camille Okhio.

To refer to Damien Hirst’s work as gauche or obvious at this point is a supremely over-used art world cliché. Discussing his work has now become this cyclical conversation of the decline in the “technical skill” (loose term of course) of artists today and Hirst’s personal impetus top shock rather than inspire. What I find more interesting at this moment is trying to qualify Hirst’s work as art with a valid intellectual reason. See I believe, regardless of what maddeningly blasé comments Hirst offers in his numbers interviews, he is actually fixated on something greater than the done to death idea of commercialism and repetition under the art world umbrella. What truly interests Hirst is balance, the life cycle, rebirth and all those related mortal concerns.

Butterfly, Tate Morden, London.

For instance, take one of Hirst’s butterfly works. They fall in two categories, those in which butterfly wings serve as infinitesimal bits of massive canvases mimicking stain glass windows, and those in Hirst’s first notable work, In and Out of Love. In love these butterflies hatch from pupae attached to a canvas and develop and fly around the space they have been installed in. Out of love they dwindle and die in that same space. Thematically these works are in the same vein as Hirst’s beastly works of decaying carcasses and flies, but aesthetically they are a different thing completely. These butterfly works visually poeticize what it is to live and die and from your living efforts, leave an eternal mark. Hirst’s work is both interactive and vaguely existential.

“In and Out of Love.”

What Hirst wants to leave you feeling is pleasant, but uncomfortably pleasant. The sort of feeling one feels after enjoying a violent movie. You liked it, but why did you like it? Why is suffering and death so fascinating to us? Hirst waters his subject down, bypassing the obviously gladiatorial, touching upon something less directly offensive and easier to swallow. Strangely, Hirst has something in common with the Dutch still life painters who would always pop in some Memento Mori piece to remind us of our mortality. Hirst is constantly prodding his viewer with death sticks. It is uncomfortable, at the very least to think we are buying, studying and writing about a work that’s composition includes and perhaps honors death.

This consideration of death then brings to mind Life of course. What does Life hide from us, what does it reveal to us? In his piece The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living Hirst all but spells out his intention to the viewer. Allow me to further clarify. Hirst immediately and purposefully confronts the viewer with one of the few creatures that is actually higher up on the food chain, a shark. I think about what it feels like to die probably more than I should, but no one knows or could know what it actually feels like to die or be about to die. In such a technologically advanced and arguably intellectually superior age there is still something we have not and cannot conquer death. Hirst’s point exactly.

“A Thousand Years.” 1990.

Damien Hirst posing with a severed Head aged sixteen. copyright, Damien Hirst.

At this point, or perhaps a point in the mid-2000s with the sale of his 1991 $12 Million dollar shark, Hirst has already proven marketability as an artist, so now I believe he is mostly interested in what he can get away with. Namely, how aggressively and overtly he can present his message. His works aren’t as easy to pin in their agendas as say an Ayn Rand novel, but he still presents an unyielding collection of information with each piece.

Viewing of any ol’ Hirst is like saying the alphabet: rudimentary, hardly engaging the memory and underwhelming. On top of that, frequently his works are even insulting. When I first saw a Dot painting by Hirst I thought “Well this is embarrassing…” Is this what we call art? In no way was this visually creative, stimulating or impressive. It was mocking. And worse yet it was simple. I refuse to believe society, esteemed collectors and curators and friends could speak of Hirst as even a valid contemporary artist with work this lacking. So I searched for something else of his worth notice. That is when I came upon his Butterfly works. I must wonder: Is art that cannot be appreciated intellectually on first sight good art? Some of Hirst’s work is certainly visually communicative, but did he happen upon this out luck? I do not think so. I think his bad works are still a mind trick. They check the viewer. Are you still awake? Engaged? You realized this is a joke right? A very extensive joke.

Damien Hirst,Chlorprotamide 1996.
Household gloss paint on canvas, The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica.

Hirst presupposes that the after death experience, if there is one, is beautiful. He manages to toy with the understanding of renewal while offering us the singular theory of “productive death.” This is an idea that could only be rationalized, before Hirst, with Christian ideals. Heaven and hell once again. Salvation and resurrection. What is interesting is that Hirst not only uses butterflies in In and Out of Love, but also in works directly referencing a destructive bourgeoisie past (or is it present?) with the collection of butterflies, and visually referencing Christian ideology and iconography.

The Wounds of Christ, silkscreen on somerset satin 410gsm, 2005
6 sheets, each 100 x 66.7cm.

Hirst has managed to occupy completely opposing positions in the art world depending on who you ask. He is an aesthetic and capitalistic genius on one end or an arrogantly kitsch, anti-academic fool on the other. As far as the title “Good Artist” can be applied, Hirst is one in that he demands a response, whether it is laudatory or dismissive. His ability to deliver this effect knowingly speaks to his discerning and self-aware eye as an artist.

The death toll for Hirst’s collective works ring high in the animal kingdom. Perhaps that number can be partially justified by the product, and in turn the though inspired by Hirst’s work. Hirst is a chef really, and his dish of choice is always an overpowering, slightly overcooked jambalaya of intellectual foreplay with a kick of poetic mortality, which somehow still ends up being a rather healthy and satisfying meal.

Camille Okhio is a contributing writer for by such and such.