Written by Jean-Max Colard
What has happened to the narrative? It has been fixed, neutralised, petrified, put on a drip, preserved in formaldehyde. Set within the spectrum of natural science with its aims of description and observation, Damien Hirst's work is anything but narrative. Furthermore, the potential narratives that it sometimes evokes are not caught at the ‘right’, operative time, but at a terminal stage. A Hirst exhibition looks like the resuscitation department of a hospital, ‘this separated space that welcomes the tangential lives, the opaque comas, the foretold deaths, which accommodates these bodies located exactly between life and death’, as Maylis de Kerangal wrote in Réparer les vivants, a novel about a heart transplant. On the other side of the diurnal and active world, Hirst's seems to be suspended, in a coma, animated only by artificial lives, closed on themselves, a space that is composed of hermetic cells, like a submarine in the depths of the abyss. Amongst the pieces on display this autumn at Astrup Fearnley Museet, two are highly emblematic of this clinical stage of the narrative.
Firstly, in Adam and Eve Exposed (2004) the initiators of all subsequent generations are lying on stretchers, covered with sheets, on the way to or just back from the surgical unit. They are alive, but in a very artificial way and placed in glass tanks, typical features of the Hirstology. Their mortal fate – as an announcement for the human fate in general – traditionally shown through a well-known succession of motifs – the snake, the apple, the Fall from Heaven – is duly recorded and expressed in this piece in an extremely contemporary clinical way. Hirst's great freshening of the Christian iconography of Adam and Eve appears in this piece through the absence of narrative but mainly through the fact that the biblical story is told from its end.
Another typical piece is The Martyrdom of Saint Peter (2002–03), and more broadly, all Hirst’s cabinets of saints and martyrs. Here we need a little reminder: saints are great narrative characters for the Christians. Their doings are recorded through narrative paintings, friezes or through the ancient literary genre known as ‘Lives of the Saints’. But once more, in Hirst's work, the narrative is dismissed, biopsy wins over biography, and Saint Peter's inverted crucifixion (out of humility, he asked to be suspended upside down) is revisited as a dissection, with all its proper instruments. The same remark could be made of The Last Supper (1999), also shown in the exhibition, in which the Apostles and Jesus's last shared dinner is narrowed down to a list – rather a posology – of freeze-dried or medicinal food from Hirst’s pharmaceutical laboratory.
What has happened then, to the Christian narrative, to the Bible as the great source of narrative, to the extent that its various episodes and characters have become reified in this way, reduced to a clinical, even terminal stage? Hirst’s take on Christian iconography coincides with a long period of de-Christianisation in the West. Thus here again, the old story of Christianity is seized in its terminal stage, at the ‘End of an Era’, which was the title of his exhibition at Gagosian Art Gallery in New York in 2010. The work of art will be emptied of narrative as long as the Christian Faith itself suffers from a deep disaffection – to the point where the martyrdom of Saint Peter appears as if Hirst has made it a representation, not of the Saint himself, but of his contemporary death throes, of his deliquescence, of his nature morte in a world threatened by de-Christianisation and left only with scientific reasoning as the prism through which it can be seen. Something of this questioning and socio-clinical observation lies in Hirst's work: what is a religious world without the faith to keep it together or the grand narrative to motivate it?
What has happened to the narrative? One could suggest that on the one hand, following the successive deconstructions of the traditional narrative that took place throughout the twentieth century (brought about by psychoanalysis, literature and especially the French ‘Nouveau Roman’ and moreover by the ‘dé-montage’ and ‘re-montage’ in film editing) and on the other hand, ‘the death of grand narratives’ proclaimed by the postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the narrative and its characters entered a state of coma, a state perfectly exemplified in Hirst’s works. In other words, artists and writers of the twenty-first century must accept the narrative condition that a century of skilful and surgical operations of dismemberment has left them with, however pitiful and dizzy a state it might be in. It is not a matter of restoring it or giving it back its integrity, but of acknowledging and taking note of this dismemberment. The terminal state into which the twentieth century has driven narrative is for them and for us, the starting point for a new aesthetic adventure and for new narrative situations.
Taking things backwards: many postmodern artists were already using this strategy in the late 1960s. One can think of John Armleder's Furniture Sculpture, which almost arbitrarily matched an abstract painting with a piece of furniture (armchair, couch, coffee table, etc.). These sets clearly consider the artwork from the collector's point of view, as if made for the place where it will be displayed: private rooms where the choice of one painting or another is guided by the owner's taste in interior decoration, the colour of the wall, of the living room, of the curtains or even the sofa. As for Warhol, I am not the only one who thinks that his Pop art period was in fact extremely brief (1961–62) and that a significant part of his work – the Electric Chairs, Crash Cars, Diamond Dust Shadows, Skulls – figure prominently amongst the darkest pages of postmodernism. One could consider post-mortem as one of the major symptoms of a dying postmodernism that characterises the contemporary period and under which Hirst's glass tanks, filled with formaldehyde and seen as biers, could also fall.
In Hirst's work, this disaffection with narrative does not only apply to the Christian tradition. Other pieces also suggest narratives only to brutally interrupt them. Sometimes, it is a tale for children, such as The Incredible Journey, released as a film by Walt Disney Pictures in 1963, which is illustrated by Hirst as a zebra in a glass tank. Only the title evokes the original narrative, since nothing in this film about the journey of three pets across Canada is reflected by such an animal, which is enrolled out of the blue, without further reason or consequence. Another time, a Revolution (2008) is halted as a horde of flies gets stuck on an orange canvas. As for the tiger shark, which since Steven Spielberg's Jaws has been the most powerful animal in contemporary cinematic narrative, in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) it is submerged in formaldehyde in another glass tank, its narrative potential thus entirely neutralised. Even more broadly, life's great narrative, i.e. natural evolution, has been brought to an end by the glass tank, a 'fish cabinet' revisiting the Wunderkammern, where learned men and Princes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would display nature's mirabilia.
Showcases, glass tanks, cabinets are spaces out of time and closed on themselves. The narrative is interrupted, for its agents or characters are floating in spaces deprived of time – limited, impenetrable, fixed, unsuitable for narration. As for the polyptych works composed from various tanks, like Mother and Child (divided), they invite us into a closed circle. It is thus difficult to achieve a monographic exhibition of Hirst's works, for many of his pieces were made to be exhibited per se, self-curated objects, self-contained and secluded.
This brings to mind the extraordinary sale of Hirst’s former restaurant Pharmacy, on two floors of Sotheby's in London (October 2004). From floor to ceiling he displayed for sale every single component of the original restaurant – chairs, tables, plates, doors, cutlery, wallpaper – along with the artworks that decorated the space. Far from being a re-enactment, and preventing any attempt to narrate the story of the place, this spectacular show, curated by the artist himself, examined, dismembered and exhibited the anatomy of the restaurant, itself shown in a terminal stage. The formal heirs of Minimalism – when one remembers that Minimalism was definitely, precisely and perfectly anti-narrative – Hirst's tanks and showcases are 'Time Capsules’, a term used by Warhol to describe his archive boxes. Except that it is not the short and fleeting time of everyday life that Hirst’s boxes contain, but the very idea of Life.
In the end, stemming the narrative allows Hirst's work to suggest new temporalities, other 'regimes of historicity’, according to a concept developed by French historian François Hartog, 'in order to get a better grasp, not on time, but mostly on moments when crisis happen’. This same crisis reveals itself again in another 'fish cabinet’, where various fishes are aligned, under a title that clearly states the absurdity of a linear trajectory: Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (1991). What, then, are these other times, these 'regimes of historicity' that stem from Hirst's work and that are seizing from the rear the linear concept of a fictional or historical time? One could first cite the cyclical time of life and death that contradicts the straight line used to represent the evolution of species and organisms and that allows him to go beyond the 'clinical’ or 'terminal' stage mentioned above to engage the living in a logic of transformation. But there is also the metaphysical time of meditative suspension, conveyed by the wordplay in the titles. In this out-of-the-present or linear time stasis, various pieces by Hirst approach the unspeakable, or rather unshowable time of immortality, a time deprived of processing or erosion. In one work, another shark floats in formaldehyde, a piece named indeed The Immortal (1997–2005), a title that finds echoes in many other works by the artist.
There is also, in Hirst's universe 'another time which does not pass’, to use a phrase coined by psychoanalyst J.-B. Pontalis – a time that does not appear to us as a narrative, that cannot really be located within a chronology, but where something like an apparition occurs. The piece that is the most typical of this other temporality might be the Unicorn, this fairy creature that happens to be trapped inside a glass tank. The piece is entitled The Dream, as if these floating animals preserved in formaldehyde and looking as if they have just come out the depths of our collective unconscious, were visions that have less to do with the real physicality of the world than with the hallucination of a dream. The martyrdom of Saint Peter or other Christian Apostles revisited by Hirst are likewise hallucinations, visions, epiphanies. From this perspective, the glass tanks and showcases are both the developing and fixing bath for the dream. There, in a closed space, kept in quarantine, the animal is doomed to dwell endlessly, motionless, silent, ignorant of what it has come to tell us. Stunned, we witness the alchemy of a dream turning solid. It arouses inside of us a confusing mix of anxiety and astonishment, paralysing our thoughts and our ability to recognise; in short, it is a feeling of the uncanny, an internal sense that is suspended between completion and incompletion – what the Portuguese poet Pessoa named disquiet.
 To be released in English as ‘The Heart’ in February 2016