Necropolis, 1996

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

The work “Necropolis” is part of Damien Hirst’s Ashtrays series, which consists of monumental sculptures of ashtrays. During the period of 1995 to 1997 the artist made four large ashtray sculptures entitled “Necropolis”, “Horror at Home”, “Crematorium” and “Party Time”. The four ashtrays have one, two, three and four cigarette rests along their rims respectively, and contain more than 15 bin bags full of cigarette butts and ashes collected from The Groucho Club, a club the artist frequented in the 1990s. The stench of this collection of cigarette butts is said to have been so unbearable that when the works were exhibited for the first time Hirst found it necessary to douse the pieces with hairspray so the viewers would not turn away at the door of the gallery.

Hirst has always worked in series, and has remarked that cigarettes are a serial repetition of elements that are identical and perfect – as are his series of spot paintings – and that the cigarette as a form is completely perfect until it is lit. The presence of cigarettes and ashtrays in Hirst’s work surfaced as long ago as his benchmark solo exhibition In and Out of Love in 1991. This exhibition, which was held in a disused travel agency in London, contained a much-discussed room holding live butterflies as well as another room hung with monochrome paintings with dead butterflies attached and a table with four full ashtrays in the middle of the room. The cigarette and ashtray motif was developed further at Hirst’s solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London that same year, where the work “The Acquired Inability to Escape” (1991) – a double vitrine holding a desk, chair, ashtray, cigarettes and lighter – was shown for the first time. The Ashtrays series thus further pursues themes addressed by the artist in earlier works.

The cigarette and ashtray motif touches on key elements of Hirst’s work, especially the theme of life and death. Although the dangerous and potentially fatal consequences of smoking have long been widely known, cigarettes have also been tremendously appealing to generations of people, admittedly with steadily decreasing power in the current century. The clash of interests between the glamorous and the destructive aspects of cigarettes bears witness to a dichotomy, a characteristic approach in which Hirst’s work interacts with itself. With regard to his use of cigarettes in this work Hirst himself has said that “I want a glimpse of an idea of what it’s like to die”[1] and that he regards the cigarette as a miniature version of the life cycle, which like our own will also inevitably end in certain death. The title of the work, “Necropolis”, means city of the dead, and is a designation for large, ancient cemeteries. The title thus evokes associations with the ashtray as a vast cemetery of ended lives – a place of death. The historical necropolises also bore a mythological significance as a portal between the worlds of the dead and the living. The cigarettes and ashtrays in Hirst’s artworks have a similar symbolic dimension, and refer to the presence – and inevitability – of death in life. The work illustrates how Hirst uses simple means to transform ordinary existing items into objects that are charged with powerful symbolism. They also function as catalysts for emotions, such as the tangible, existential repugnance that arises when we are confronted with the oversized ashtray that functions as a memento mori, reminding us of our mortality and thus, hopefully, also of the here and now – life itself.  

[1] Damien Hirst cited in «Damien Hirst & Sophie Calle», <>. [Read 2015.07.02]

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