Mother and Child (Divided), 1993

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

The work “Mother and Child (Divided)” is part of Damien Hirst’s Natural History series. This series consists of monumental artworks in which various animals are placed inside large tanks filled with formaldehyde. Hirst himself has described the series as “a zoo of dead animals”.[1] The first work in the Natural History series was “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), a four-metre-long tiger shark suspended in a three-part tank of formaldehyde, weighing a total of 23 tons. This work triggered a storm of reactions in the art world, and has become an icon of contemporary art history. “Mother and Child (Divided)” is one of the earliest and most influential works in the series. It was first shown in 1993 at the Venice Biennale’s Aperto 93 exhibition, and was the focal piece when Hirst won the prestigious Turner Prize art award in 1995. The Natural History series can be seen in connection with Hirst’s artistic development in early works such as “Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding” (1991), featuring a large variety of fish exhibited in small glass boxes filled with formaldehyde. It was in works such as this that Hirst first adopted the method used by museums of natural history to preserve animal specimens in glass and formaldehyde, which he then implemented on a larger scale in the works of the Natural History series.

“Mother and Child (Divided)” consists of a cow and a calf – a mother and child, as indicated by the title. As opposed to the shark, which was immersed in its entirety in a tank of formaldehyde, the animals of “Mother and Child (Divided)” are bisected, and each of the four halves is exhibited in a separate tank. The carcasses were divided while they were frozen, a task carried out with a chain saw by Hirst himself along with an assistant. The four individual halves were then sewn onto a transparent acrylic board before being placed in the tank of formaldehyde solution, which prevents the animals’ bodies from decomposing. Hirst is adopting the scientific and visual language of the natural history museums by using formaldehyde-filled glass tanks, thus acknowledging the scientific domain as one of the major, overarching themes of his work. The stratagem of cutting the animals in half heightens the drama over that of the earlier shark piece, and draws on yet another scientific reference: the history of dissection. Artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in this field, and carried out a number of dissections and illustrations of both humans and animals. This combination of scientific and artistic exploration of dissection is a fascinating example of how two different main interests in Hirst’s work, science and art, are united.

The third major thematic focus of Hirst’s art is faith and religion, and “Mother and Child (Divided)” also incorporates clear religious references. The Bible describes the tradition of cutting the sacrificial animal in half, for example when Abraham brought a heifer, a goat and a ram to God and cut them in two.[2] But it is especially the connection between mother and child implied by the title of the work that evokes the mother-and-child motif, a fundamental image of Christian iconography. The religious portrayal of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus illustrates not only a religious story, but also the universal human condition. However, this work focuses not only on the mother-child connection as something life-giving, but also on the inevitable separation of mother and child that begins at birth and continues until the immutability of death. With the literal separation of mother and child that is present in the work, a fear of death is introduced that was also clearly invoked in the preceding shark piece, where the encounter with a ghastly creature, separated from the viewer only by a layer of glass, generated an emotional and existential impact.

In addition to the combination of religious and scientific elements, the work also has a number of references to art history. Not only does it benefit from the readymade legacy of Marcel Duchamp and the possibility of creating art by combining pre-existing objects, but Hirst’s distinctive steel-and-glass tanks and their references to the sculptural box-like shapes of minimalism have also been emphasised, especially due to Hirst’s designation of minimalist artists such as Sol Lewitt and Donald Judd as among his artistic role models during his formative student days. But Hirst was also aware that minimalism was not a trend that he could pursue further artistically. He thus took hold of minimalism’s most representative shape – the cube – and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning at the interface between his religious, scientific and artistic investigations.

This confluence of references to both conceptual and formal content from religion, science and art history illustrates Hirst’s general interest in science and religion as belief systems, and his exploration of how they can be united or reconciled through art in a work such as “Mother and Child (Divided)”. The two animals are protected from decay, decomposition and death by being placed in a formaldehyde-filled glass tank. A suspension of time is achieved in which the motif is captured in an ideal condition and thus attains immortality through art.

[1] Damien Hirst cited in Morgan, Stuart and Hirst, Damien (1995): An Interview with Damien Hirst <>. [Read 2015.08.24]

[2] Genesis 15:9-10.

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