Written by Therese Möllenhoff
The work “New Religion – The Fate of Man” was part of Hirst’s New Religion exhibition, which went on tour to art institutes and galleries all over the world, and was shown at All Hallows Church in London in 2007. This was Hirst’s first major graphics exhibition, and included over 40 silkscreen prints as well as a handful of sculptural objects. The artist himself stated that the New Religion exhibition explored how science functions as a new form of religion for many people today. This thematic connection between science and religion has been a recurrent theme in Hirst’s practice. The exhibition included works that combined thematic and visual elements of both religion and science, such as the New Religion silkscreen prints, whose titles derive from chapters of the Bible, and which in the same manner as the series The Last Supper makes use of the visual style of medicine packages. The work “New Religion – The Fate of Man” is a sculpture of a human cranium. It is cast in silver with a black patina, and the specimen at the Astrup Fearnley is mounted on a specially crafted bronze plinth. The modest dimensions of the skull, 15x12x20 cm, along with the exposed layer of baby teeth, indicate that this is the skull of a child.
The skull is a primal and universal symbol of death. When we look at a skull we are more or less staring death in the face as an anthropomorphised image of our own fate. The skull has a long history as a figurative motif, especially as an element of the vanitas paintings of European art history. In such still life paintings the skull represents a reminder of death and of life’s transitory nature, as do symbols such as rotting fruit and wilting flowers. The skull, in its awe-inspiring ghastliness, was an object of contemplation when presented in this way. The existence of the skull as a motif can be traced from early Christian and medieval mosaics, via Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and Renaissance paintings, to modern art history. In light of the Pop Art-like aesthetic in the New Religion silkscreen series, Andy Warhol’s iconic skull paintings are perhaps among most closely related works in recent art history. The symbolism of the skull has undergone several changes, from the contemplative memento mori to the more disturbing death’s head as a symbol of rebellion and anti-establishment sentiment in music genres such as rock and metal or subcultures such as groups of motorcycle enthusiasts. But within popular culture the skull has experienced a process of normalisation thus far in the 2000s, with its shock effect becoming less dramatic. When British designer Alexander McQueen launched his skull scarf in 2003, it appeared around the necks of celebrities and young girls all over the world. This helped to normalise the skull as part of popular culture in the form of both fashion and decoration – a symbol that previous generations would have found unthinkable to use as ornamentation as people do today. McQueen was a contemporary of Hirst’s in age and background, and both men occupy a position as among the most influential modern creators of dramatic visual expressions that have achieved a significant impact in our time.
Hirst’s fascination with the skull as a motif is also evident in his own art collection, which includes works that reproduce the motif in everything from classical vanitas paintings of skulls to more contemporary versions such as Angus Fairhurst’s sculpture “Reduced In A Circular Formation” (2005). The motif also appears frequently in his recent series of paintings, After Beautiful Paintings. In “The Fate of Man” the small child’s cranium takes on an even more unpleasant aura because of the exposed layers of teeth that signify future life stages that would never come to be. While most of Hirst’s artworks have been praised for combining various existing elements to form an innovative visual expression, the skull in “The Fate of Man” is a classic motif in its visual design. Other than in its black patina the motif has not been further adapted or combined with other formal elements, unlike the later diamond-encrusted skull in “For the Love of God” (2007). All the same, it glides seamlessly into Hirst’s production as the ultimate symbol of life and death – a theme Hirst’s practice has revolved around with the use of a range of other conceptual and formal instruments. The title “The Fate of Man” embodies the immutable fate of mankind: our own death – the only certain outcome in and of life.