A Redemptive Beauty – Damien Hirst in the Astrup Fearnley Collection


Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

Astrup Fearnley Museet, one of only a few private art museums in Scandinavia, houses an exceptional collection of international contemporary art. This collection, however, is not historical and nor does it aspire to present an encyclopaedic overview of international art. Instead, it is an agglomeration of works by individual artists who occupy key positions in the field of contemporary art. These are artists who have reinvented significant aspects of cultural production, and who have created visual languages, objects and images of great originality and quality. The ambition of the Astrup Fearnley Collection is thus to collect and present major works by these artists, and to do so in illuminating depth.

Damien Hirst is one of the artists who holds a special position within Astrup Fearnley Museet. His works were included in the collection quite early in his career, starting with the acquisition of Mother and Child (Divided) (1993) in the spring of 1996. Astrup Fearnley Museet now boasts a significant collection of his works, which is on permanent display.

Hirst, who has now achieved superstar status in the contemporary art world, was born in Bristol in 1965 and studied art first in Leeds and then later at Goldsmith’s College, London. After having carved out his place on the British art scene as a remarkable emerging artist, he gained his first international acclaim at the 1993 Venice Biennale. When he won the 1995 Turner Prize, his talent was broadly recognised, and his stamp firmly embossed on the global contemporary art map. His position as the key protagonist of the Young British Artists phenomenon, established over the course of the 1990s, continues to the present.

Hirst simultaneously works with sculpture, installation and painting. Deriving his artistic language from the long tradition of the readymade and altered readymade, he appropriates, collages and assembles common objects and known artistic structures and vocabularies, without any kind of hierarchy, to create new and highly symbolic works.

Ever since his student years, Hirst has engaged with important art-historical precedents. Early on, he referred to Marcel Duchamp, Pop art, New Realism, Minimalism, Conceptual art and the Appropriation artists. By absorbing known artistic forms and strategies, we can say that he deliberately wrote himself  – or perhaps more appropriately, collaged himself – into art history. In his series of Medicine Cabinets, assemblages of different medication packages, and his use of boxes/cabinets in general, we can see the presence of Joseph Cornell. The Spot Paintings can be viewed in relation to Gerhard Richter’s Color Chart works. And his glass tanks make clear reference to the structures of Minimalists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, but also to the vitrines of Joseph Beuys, the floating basketballs of Jeff Koons and the cages of Francis Bacon. The notion of display is an important vector for Hirst. Creating new mechanisms of mise-en-scene for his intriguing and surprising constellations of objects in order to create symbolic narratives has given power and originality to his works. He is always seeking, through the creation of visual effects, to capture the emotion of the spectator. His evocative titles, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), also activate the viewer’s imagination.

Hirst has invented a number of formal structures that frame his aesthetics and that can be used over and over again with different content. There are the vitrines containing medical equipment, fish, cigarettes, semi-precious stones, apostolic references; the tanks with organic objects suspended in formaldehyde; as well as the Spot Paintings, the Spin Paintings and the Butterfly Paintings to name a few. (All together his formal universe is very much about rectangular and circular forms.) Again and again he returns to accumulations – a well-known figure of speech in art history, especially among the Pop artists and New Realists like artist Arman. But even when he takes up artistic ‘clichés’, he will of course transform the nature of what he has borrowed. His originality lies in this choice of surprising materials – strong and significant objects never before seen in art history – as signs that suggest narratives. These can be repulsive organic phenomena like the severed head of a cow or dead flies, or precious stones and pills in various forms and colours, evoking a genuine research into beauty. Even though real animals have been used in artworks through the ages – with artists like the Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch (b.1938) including a dead cow in his bloody performances, or Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis (b. 1936) creating installations incorporating live parrots or horses – Hirst’s approach is different, emphasising symbolic narratives, and the beauty of the display.

Is it really appropriate or even possible to reduce Hirst’s art to categories such as sculpture, installation or painting? His work could perhaps be more fittingly described as an orchestrated collage-based system that goes beyond the art objects and which brings in the whole notion of production, as well as the merchandising, the marketing, the curating of his exhibitions, which are taken on by the artist’s production company and his chain of retail shops in a new ‘management model’ for an artist. This approach was most clearly exemplified at the Sotheby's sale held in the autumn of 2004, where he sold the contents of his London restaurant Pharmacy, and at his powerful Sotheby’s performance-exhibition-auction entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, held in the fall of 2008, the day before the Lehman Brothers crash, presenting 223 new works. Short-circuiting the traditional gallery system as the sole representative of the primary market was a spectacular manoeuvre.

The system utilised in the Spin Paintings is based on the kind of ‘spin-painting entertainment’ popularised by the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen: a rotating machine turns the canvas, onto which the children-artists pour different colours of paint. The Spot Paintings system is to create spots of different colours, which are always of the same diameter, equally distributed on the canvas, consistently at the same distance. Hundreds, even thousands, of these works make up the total system. The mechanical aspect of the creativity process reinforces the systematic procedures of the artist’s work in general. Their originality lies in the scale of the ‘system’, rather than in individual paintings. Another system is to use images and objects originally intended for educational purposes, such as anatomical models. Borrowing the strategy of the Pop artists, Hirst blows up these objects to scale and converts them to new kinds of materials, while always maintaining the perfection of their surfaces.

Such strategies are closely tied to Hirst’s profound interest in deeply symbolic and metaphysical questions. Long fascinated by death, he seduces spectators with his often grotesque reflections on mortality: cadavers suspended in formaldehyde; butterflies objectified onto canvases; medicine and medical equipment housed in sterile cabinets; flies amassed on pictorial surfaces; images of cancer cells. In all these works, the spectator is confronted with a ‘decisive moment’ of no return, a rigorous sense of total equilibrium. Fatal situations are eerily fixed and suspended in time as if the artist were trying, metaphorically, to reverse nature’s usual cycle.

In the early formaldehyde sculptures, there seems to be an emphasis on the direct, shock-effects of the objects, but at the same time, the artist seeks to reveal the multi-semantic nature of the objects. An encounter with a terrifying tiger shark and a real cow and its calf cut into two parts exposing their intestines, puts the spectator into a situation of unease at the same time as inviting a symbolic interpretation. The early Medicine Cabinets, with their straightforward use of the medicine packages, also invite such interpretation. The later formaldehyde works like as God Alone Knows (2007), have the tendency to become more theatrical, explicit and obvious in their narratives (three sheep in three tanks represent the crucifixion of Christ between two thieves). Other containers have become more glamorous with their golden profiles. The same goes for the Butterfly Paintings, which over the years have become more and more decorative and overwhelming in their ‘gothic’ references.

Hirst’s art is in this sense, a redemption of death. As his spectacle of shock has run its course, his acts and objects that were once deemed grotesque or in bad taste, have been rearticulated into a state of the sublime – a new kind of beauty in art history.

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