Corporeal and the Sacred: Damien Hirst at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
By Gio Pennacchietti
It is quite a feat for any writer on the “Culture Right”, those whom are typically labelled as being a part of the illustrious tradition of “curmudgeon-con” social critique (think Scruton, Lasch, etc.) to give an impartial take, even a positive one, on the artistic output of someone like Damien Hirst. The mere utterance of his name to many is eye-roll inducing, the epitome of what many consider the heights of ridiculousness and inanity produced by (miss-identified) “modern art”. Paul Joseph Watson and others are seemingly ready at a moment’s notice to take the most credulous and stupefying examples of pieces from the contemporary art world and blast them with a mocking fervor in front of thousands of YouTube viewers. Some criticism is warranted of course, but is there any artistic merit to the work of the self-styled “bad boy” of the YBA (young British artists), this century’s go-to “Enfant Terrible” of the contemporary art world, let alone from a right-leaning perspective?
The Daily Mail once described Hirst (and Tracy Emin, the queen of the YBA) and his art in such a way: “for 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilizing forces, today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all”. But is this not one of the historicizing moves of the high-minded postmodern art? To revive what was once “barbarian”, de-rooted from its past and context, mash it with a plethora of other signifiers, and make side-street meat market cutlets out of these barbarian impulses and the so-called “primitivist art” it produces. What does this have to do with Damien Hirst and his art exactly? Well quite a bit, if one is willing to stretch art analysis to its limits (at least in terms of the usual ideological and cultural proclivities of mainstream critics and tastemakers), and slues out some hidden meaning from what at first glance appears to be merely faddish, sensationalist commercialized contemporary art.
What is the main theme that comes instantly to mind when observing any Hirst installation? The big D word, Death, being-towards-death, that which singularizes, and at the same time, universalizes us as beings into being itself. Damien Hirst provides a full spectrum cacophony of conceptual images that takes us from every stage of life, all heading full on towards that singular event of death. From displaying microscopic images of infectious diseases and cancer cells, to an exhibit of flies feeding off of a cow’s head, incorporating their full (yet short) lifespan, Hirst’s work almost exclusively deals with death’s inevitability. As Heidegger notes “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself. We name time when we say: everything has its time”.
To become fully aware of death, to the point of one’s onto-existential comportment being affected by it, to live within a mode of continual reinvention and authenticity, is revealed at the deepest of levels in art dealing with the subject of death itself; Hirst’s work is a long Zen-like meditation that jars one into the ultimate reality of death. Even his most well-known piece that made him (in)famous, arguably his Magnum-opus “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)” of a shark, tooth-laden mouth agape, suspended in formaldehyde like an anatomy class display, is a meditation of death. Not only a meditation, but an attempt to suspend the shark, a mighty predator, into a form of anti-death stasis, death but not quite, living as a fixed being-in itself (in other words, an object to gawk at) but not really alive.
In his excellent work on contemporary art from a reactionary perspective, Christopher Pankhurst in “Numinous Machines” lays out the case that beyond the seeming popular shock and postmodern flair that is typical of the YBA, Hirst is in fact a modern metaphysical artist, on par with that of the great genre painters and mystic-artists of the past. Hirst’s work, in dealing with death, exposes a kind of befallen and profaned sacredness to his aesthetic subjects. Modernity, with its scientific reductionism and materialism has muted and worn down the sacred in the minds of most normal people, so these aesthetic odes to death reveal a nodding towards what is still a great question mark of existence, the final room from which the mystical and the mysterious springs fourth to us, death and what comes after. Hirst is a cosmic taxidermist, and thus sees beyond the faux celebrity and gratuitous image-consumerism of the contemporary art world, albeit his image has become a victim of the shallowness and metaphysical dyslexia of the art world tastemakers cabal.
Let us get into the real purpose of this essay, to profile and speculate on the recent collection of installations on display at Sculpture Park in Yorkshire, right near where Hirst was born and raised in Leeds. It is quite a compelling biographical detail given the fact that the collection is based loosely around the themes of divinity represented and depicted as being rendered “in the flesh” as it were, and the cycles of birth and death. A total of seven Hirst pieces are on display with a mix of other (and in my opinion, more unremarkable and politically propagandistic) pieces from various artists. I shall now go through each piece in no particular order, for all of them are integral to Hirst’s reflective mood towards the collection. Hirst after all is making an artistic return to his home, to these pieces are brought together with an obvious significance.
“Hymn” is the most blatant and garish of the pieces on display and represents a mainstay of several different pieces Hirst has produced over the years. Exposed anatomy, the vibrant and even cartoon-like colors of flesh, muscle and bone are present in a majority of the Yorkshire collection. Here is a typical anatomical man, head and torso, rib cage, intercostal muscles and half a skull exposed, a rather large statue that looks like it came right out of an anatomy class. Hirst (and his army of studio hands and artisan helpers) erected this piece originally from a toy anatomy he had bought for his son. The piece weighs several tons, as if to represent the near metaphysical “weight” of the flesh in the era of pervading materiality. The Kali Yuga is described as the era of the Tamas Guna, weighed down, impenetrable matter that prevents spiritual insight. Man is made flesh, and only flesh.
A piece that goes well with the theme of Hirst reminiscing on his childhood. “Charity” like “Hymn” is another large bronze statue of a little blonde girl carrying a donation box for the “Spastics Society” (now Scope, to which Hirst donates to frequently) in one hand, a teddy bear in another while wearing a leg brace. Hirst made the piece as a way of pointing out the social conversation regarding changing attitudes towards the disabled in society. As a child he would often see disabled volunteers on the streets with Scope donation boxes. Again, the spectre of death and decrepitude haunts the disabled girl, it is as if the statue itself is a stark reminder of the lowly, a wound in one’s consciousness that reflects back to us our privileged state in the world to not suffer from illnesses and disabilities. The little girl is almost like a holy figure, a representative from a previously, and in some ways continually marginalized (at least in his childhood days in the 60s and 70s) social destitute class made into an object of veneration. There is almost a hint of secularized Christian meekness and as Jung said, a “conscious veneration of the lowly” in this iconic piece.
“Black Sheep with the Golden Horns (2009)” and “The Hat Makes the Man (2004-2007)”.
A standard piece Hirst is world-famous for, another formaldehyde animal piece in his renowned series, this time a whole black ram preserved, with golden-leaf covered horns. Perhaps the symbolism is simply those of taking into consideration the “golden” better qualities of the “black sheep” of a group or family. It is a slightly humorous titbit that the piece is “interactive” you can say, because art galleries have called in chemical experts to monitor this and a number of his other submerged pieces for formaldehyde fume leakage, and some patrons have reported feeling ill around them.
“The Hat Makes the Man” is an ode to the iconic surrealist painter Max Ernst, who cut and pasted photos of top hats from sales catalogues and collaged them together onto colorful poles (original work, 1920). Hirst simply took the painting and made a larger installation of it in three-dimensional form. The original Ernst piece that Hirst rendered in bronze (like Hymn and Charity) represents an observation from Freud’s book “The Joke and its relation to the Unconscious” (1905) about top hats (which was the style at the time) being a symbol of Bourgeois social repression and entry for men into acceptable society. Ernst took the stacks of hats to be a symbol for not just the repression of desire, but of the statues of masculinity itself, the top hat is like a phallic replacement, standing atop erect poles, perhaps denoting social stratification.
Hirst resurrection of the collage in bronze form, placed outside near the Black sheep is at first glance a random contrast. However, both deal with one’s place in the sedimentary hierarchy of society and culture. Ernst himself commented on the Dadaist piece as being like a hallucination, that lifted mundane advertising into an outlet of “dramas expressing my innermost desires”. The towers of masculine social clout contrasted to the black sheep creates a kind of symbolic relationship, as if to say there is the conformity of expectations and the peripheral margins of those that do not fit in. It is no surprise that the ram, even in Christianity, denotes masculine energies as well, the ability to break through barriers, protect the herd, but also symbolizes sacrifice. The black sheep is the scapegoat, a theme that will play out in the other Sculpture Park pieces that Hirst has selected, especially “Virgin Mother”.
“Myth (2010)”, “Anatomy of an Angel (2008)” and “The Virgin Mother (2005-2006)”.
Here we arrive at the veritable meat (pun intended) of the collection in terms of meaning. Myth presents another anatomy piece of a skin-stripped unicorn horse, muscles and fibrous tendons exposed on one side. The horse was originally part of a duel piece with “Legend” shown side by side. Horses have always played a role in mythos throughout the world and have been integral to human history and development as one of the first domesticated animals. From Odin’s steed Sleipnir to the Greek white winged horse Pegasus (which is represented by “Legend”), horses have always denoted a symbol of mythic power, and have cultivated a mystique around great men of history that have been depicted as riding off into battle. Horses are an archetypal image found in both the global east and west alike.
“Anatomy of an Angel” is a pure white statue rendered in the same pose as Alfred Boucher’s sculpture “L'Hirondelle” (1920) that depicts an angel with a cross face and chest cut out that exposes various anatomic parts, such as ribs, intestines, breast tissue, a thigh bone, etc. The angels share key differences; Boucher’s angel is the veneration of an idealized heavenly beauty, and in the other, with a cut out face exposing the skull and teeth, Hirst’s ode to the original is almost shocking in its humanness and vivisection. As Hirst once remarked “you can frighten people with the idea of death or their own morality, or it can give them vigor”, as if Hirst anticipates his work is that which aims towards a state of Being-towards-Death.
Finally, “The Virgin Mother” is the most direct of all the religious inspired Hirst pieces. As a counterpart to the male statue in the collection “Hyme”, Virgin Mother is a ten-meter-tall bronze and gold statue of an anatomical pregnant woman, half of her from the skull to her womb exposed, revealing the fetus inside. The statue shares the same physical structure as Angel, revealing exposed breast tissue. This time the feminine archetypal aspect is mortal, instead of the immortality of an angel, instead motherhood is celebrated as the eternal aspect of the feminine.
What connects all of these latter pieces is a shared fascination with bringing down or leveling the images of divinity and mythology with corporeality. This is done for a specific reason, it is committed with the intent of doing what not a lot of luminaries in the contemporary art world can get away with, reintroducing the metaphysical and the sacred into the world of contemporary art; these figures are purposefully rendered as human, perhaps all too human, and once daunting mythic figures, filled with meaning, are made flesh. Hirst is saying that in the world of scientific materialism, rampant secularism and general relativism in terms of foundational beliefs and mythos, these figures from our sacred past can only enter into modernity through a profaned and materialist alchemical transformation.
Every figure is a humanized representation of death, from angelic beings, the Virgin Mary denoting motherhood and the neutering-feminine, to our final journey towards death. Decrepitude and social ostracism drive our consciousness on the topic of death, and even social signaling (Hat makes the man) denotes a polarized drive towards the conquering-masculine. Only through this clever disguise of materiality and medicalization can the sacred become palatable to modernist sensibilities, and re-enter into modern aesthetic discourse. From this we can potentially argue in favor of an interpretation that Damien Hirst is a metaphysical artist, perhaps even verging on not necessarily the post-modern, but the pre or even implicitly anti-modern. Hirst’s work is teeming with death and the scattered remains of mythos images that have survived the fall. The mythic becomes the human, the animal, but this is not some edgy iconoclasm, that would be too vulgar. Instead Hirst is communicating a language of recognition and a coming to terms with modernity. Right down to his common symbolic language Hirst uses denotes this point-towards the sacred, for instance his famed use of butterflies, a messenger of the “other world” and resurrection in Christian iconography; the homecoming of Damien Hirst is a mythic one, making him one of the most thought-provoking and perhaps somewhat reactionary (in its purest, de-politicised sense) artist of our time, and shan’t be overlooked for his various marketing stunts and eyeroll-at-first-glance subject matter.