Explained: Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde sculptures, their acceptance and criticism

Damien Hirst, the United Kingdom’s richest living artist according to the 2020 Sunday Times’ Rich List, has produced some of the most controversial artworks of recent years, which includes the much-debated series of formaldehyde sculptures with dead animals. The sculptures have been a part of his practice since the 1990s and now an exhibition titled Natural History at Gagosian Gallery in London brings together more than 20 iconic works from the series, spanning over three decades, from 1991.

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When did Damien Hirst first come to attention?

One of the leading names of the collective Young British Artists (YBA), Hirst was still pursuing his graduation in fine art from the prestigious Goldsmiths College in London when he became the main organizer of the group’s exhibition, Freeze, that took place in 1988 at an empty Port Authority warehouse in London. He soon caught the attention of British advertiser and collector Charles Saatchi, who in 1990 bought Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990)—a depiction of the cycle of birth and death through a glass showcase that had maggots hatching inside a white box, turning into flies and feeding on a severe cow’s head kept on the floor.

When did Hirst begin on the formaldehyde series?

Even as a teenager studying art in Leeds, Hirst would reportedly draw bodies preserved in formaldehyde. His first actual installation came early on in his career when Saatchi paid him ÂŁ50,000 for any work he desired. The outcome was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), with a tiger shark in formaldehyde in a display case. The shark had been caught by a commissioned fisherman in Australia and the work received instant attention, even fetching Hirst a Turner Prize nomination. Subsequently, Hirst has made several works in the series. The ongoing exhibition at Gagosian includes, among others, Beginning with The Impossible Lovers (1991), a cabinet filled with glass jars with preserved cow’s organs, I Am (1995) that has a sheep, and Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded (1993) with a small shark cut into three.

How have the works from the series been received?

Though Hirst’s works using animals have been criticized by animal rights activists, the global art market itself is divided—evident from the response he received early on in his career, including his first major international showcase at the 1993 Venice Biennale, where he exhibited Mother and Child Divided with a cow and a calf cut into sections and exhibited in separate tanks. In his 2010 paper “Damien Hirst’s shark: nature, capitalism and the sublime” artist Luke White wrote: “Being largely about life and death, his artworks are consequently based on anthropological and psychological concepts such as primordial fears and horror but also ecstatic joy, visualized in an iconic form and transmitted to the viewer through the experience of shock and excitement”.

While some animals were dead before Hirst decided to use them, others were killed for his art. In 2012, Hirst’s exhibition In and Out of Love at Tate Modern had two windowless rooms filled with live butterflies, brought every day during the show by a butterfly expert and swept by the museum staff after they died. While some were concerned that the butterflies were not in their natural habitat, others were delighted at the opportunity of observing them closely. It was later reported that more than 9,000 butterflies died during the 23-week exhibition.

In 2017, the art market website artnet estimated that Hirst had used almost one million animals for his works. In terms of market value, Hirst’s sheer popularity can be gauged from the fact that in September 2008, Sotheby’s foray into the primary market with Hirst’s Beautiful Inside My Head Forever—featuring whole animals in formaldehyde, medicine cabinets and spin paintings—exceeded all expectations, grossing $200.75 million.

What has Hirst said about the series?

Several art historians and critics have pointed out that though controversial, Hirst’s works have precedence in art—among others artists such as Salvador Dali used live snails in The Rainy Taxi, and Joseph Beuys’ Fat Chair and other sculptures were made from fat. Hirst himself has not been bogged down by criticism and mortality has remained a central theme in his work. In a 2008 interview with Anthony Haden-Guest for interviewmagazine.com, the artist stated, “Death’s just something that inspires me, not something that pulls me down. I used to get called morbid at school. I have always loved horror films; I like being frightened.”

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