Written by Susanne Roald
The work “Leukaemia” is one of Damien Hirst’s fly paintings, which incorporates the bodies of thousands of dead flies, layered onto the canvas surface and coated in resin. The first time Hirst used flies in his work was with the iconic vitrine pieces “A Thousand Years” (1990) and “A Hundred Years” (1990), which were shown at the exhibition Gambler in a London warehouse in 1990. The vitrines held an electric fly killer, maggots that hatched into flies and a decaying cow’s head, and they symbolised the repetitive and meaningless nature of mortality. After these works Hirst began developing the fly paintings. He created the first, “Untitled Black Monochrome (Without Emotion)” in 1997, and after five years of seeking inspiration, conducting experiments and pursuing technological development, Hirst created his second fly painting, “Who’s Afraid of the Dark?” (2002). The fly paintings were presented to the public for the first time at the exhibition Romance in the Age of Uncertainty at the White Cube in London in 2003. Thirteen fly paintings were shown there, each bearing a title associated with an illness or disaster, and each of which referred in its own way to death, among them “Leukaemia”.
One of Hirst’s principal sources of artistic inspiration while he was working on the fly paintings was the American artist Richard Serra. It was Serra himself who encouraged Hirst to return to the fly paintings, and Hirst has pointed out that they resemble Serra’s black paintstick drawings. These drawings are rendered as thick, black, uneven surfaces, drawn with crayons made of pigment, oil and wax. Despite the formal properties they share, there are clear differences between the works of these two artists. While Serra’s drawings are faithful to the minimalist tradition and refer to their own formal qualities, the titles, sombre colour schemes and dramatic choice of material, in the form of dead flies, in Hirst’s fly paintings carry a powerful emotional charge. The works also fit well among the monochrome black paintings of art history, with “Black Square” (1915) by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) as the first, iconic example.
With regard to the fly paintings, Hirst has quoted the famous book Leviathan (1651), by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”[i] These words describe the fate of humanity in a world without an overarching authority in a situation Hobbes describes as “the natural condition of mankind”. It is precisely this dark quality of society and life that the dark flies represent in Hirst’s paintings. The fly, according to Hirst, can also be viewed as a metaphor for the human being and the work can be interpreted as a picture of the life cycle itself, as manifested by the flies.
The work “Leukaemia” shows a rectangular canvas with an uneven surface that consists of the bodies of thousands of flies mixed with resin. The painting as a whole exhibits a deep brown-black colour with red, brown, black and white highlights deriving from the different body parts of the flies. The resin mixture accentuates the natural gloss of the flies, giving the surface a viscous appearance that is reminiscent of tar. On the side of the canvas Hirst has written: “Credo in Deum Patrem Omnipotentem, creatorem coeli et terrae”, which means “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” This text is a part of the Apostles’ Creed, and thus also imbues the work with a religious aura and introduces a feeling of hope in the otherwise gloomy picture. “Leukaemia” thus alludes to central themes in Hirst’s production: religion and the duality of life and death.
[i] Damien Hirst, cited in “Like People, Like Flies: Damien Hirst Interviewed”, Mirta D’Argenzio, The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989–2004 (Electa Napoli, 2004), 94.