Written by Therese Möllenhoff
The work “God Alone Knows” is part of Damien Hirst’s series Natural History, a group of monumental artworks featuring various animals in the large, formaldehyde-filled tanks that we are familiar with from animal specimens that are preserved in natural history museums. Hirst’s dramatic amplification of this in artistic form began in the early 1990s with the iconic work “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), where he placed a tiger shark in a large tank of formaldehyde. This first work in the series is said to have been envisaged by the artist while he was still a student at Goldsmiths College in London, and emerged as a reality when it was shown at the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists 1 exhibition in 1991. The Astrup Fearnley Collection’s “Mother and Child (Divided)” (1993) is also one of the earliest and most iconic works in the series, and there is a gap of 12 years between this work and “God Alone Knows”, which was first shown at Hirst’s Beyond Belief exhibition in 2007. Hirst is known for producing his artworks in a number of different series that often span long periods of time. With regard to the creation of “God Alone Knows”, Hirst has declared that he actually considered himself finished with the Natural History series before he conceived the idea of the crucifixion scene that led to this work. “God Alone Knows” thus represents a further development of the thematic concept of the previous works, while it is more explicit in its emphasis on both the fear of death and the interplay between the scientific and the religious references.
In “God Alone Knows” we are confronted with three monumental tanks, each placed on a marble plinth. In each of the aquarium-like tanks a sheep is hanging, nailed by its hooves to a mirrored surface in a dramatic crucifixion-like position. The sheep are completely flayed, and together they constitute a motif that is undeniably reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves. The cross itself is not present in the work, but is implied in the position of the sheep carcasses towering over the observer. The use of the sheep carcasses also intensifies the religious associations in the work, as the lamb holds a powerful symbolic position within Christianity. The crucifixion scene is a well-known motif in the history of art, but perhaps in our secularised society it does not elicit emotions in the modern viewer that are commensurate with the implicit barbarity of the event. Through the use of flayed sheep in Hirst’s version the work emerges as an emotionally charged and horrifying memento mori.
As is typical of Hirst’s art, the religious undertones of the work operate along with equally strong scientific elements. Hirst’s interest in science is an integral part of his art, and all of his artistic production is organised in a studio that he has named Science. In “God Alone Knows” we encounter the scientific preservation of animal specimens in formaldehyde-filled tanks, which are familiar to us from museums of natural history. In this manner he merges elements from religion and science, both conceptually and visually, in the artwork. He unites these two “belief systems” through art, thus hopefully fulfilling his wish for art to serve as a separate and conciliatory type of belief system.
The three tanks of the work give it the format of a triptych – a format that is often associated with religious paintings, especially Christian altarpieces. The use of the triptych format was also typical of the British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992), whom Hirst has identified as one of his artistic role models. The way in which the sheep are framed in “God Alone Knows”, in three juxtaposed tanks, evokes associations with both Bacon’s use of the triptych format and his method of framing his figures within cage-like linear constructions within his painterly pictorial space. The flayed sheep are also reminiscent of Bacon’s use of animal carcasses as a motif in works such as “Figure with Meat” (1954), where a pope and two hanging animal carcasses behind him create a crucifixion-like composition or the iconic photograph of Bacon himself, situated between two hanging animal carcasses. In “God Alone Knows” Hirst has incorporated a textual element that intensifies the symbolic and existential aspect of the work. On each of the marble plinths the letters G. A. K., standing for “God Alone Knows”, are engraved in gold, imbuing the plinths with a gravestone-like aura. Also engraved on the front of each plinth is a verse from an unpublished poem by artist Paul Fryer, a close friend of Hirst. The text reads:
Here is the night
It is a reflection of the hopeful terror of the day
Be not afraid
This poem emphasises the elements of fear and the presence of darkness and death in life – but at the same time sparks a measure of hope. The words “hopeful” and “terror” appear as utterly contradictory concepts, but at the same time imply a reconciliation with the unpredictable course of life and its inevitable end.