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  • Mariana Baião Santos

An Unnatural History


Installation View. @ Gagosian, London. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photohraphy: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.


From this side of the glass, you can see, through the blue reflection, your face contorting. On the other side, he remains motionless. With his mouth open, you can count all the teeth in the various rows. Sharks have an average of 50 to 300 teeth.


This one is entitled Death Denied (2008), a smaller version of the famous The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Damien Hirst usually presents his works with whimsical titles that overlay layers of meaning sometimes deeper than the visual representation of the work. The title is an intrinsic part as in any good conceptualist.


Death has certainly been denied by itself, for the vivacity with which it seems to want to get out of the tank towards us is a matter that has to be mentally reviewed by the spectator in order to certify our own safety.

Natural History, as the press release states, is the first exhibition dedicated to Hirst’s innovative works that use formaldehyde. The text goes on, with a focus on the slimy blue liquid and little attention on the animals, mentioned as materials in the captions of the works. Glass, painted steel, silicone, acrylic, cow, formaldehyde solution.


The exhibition is little about environmentalism and animal rights and more about the intense triggering of emotions. Even in The Beheading of John The Baptist (2006), a slaughterhouse scene in which the cow’s head rests on a table while the rest of the body lies on the floor. Natural History invokes feelings of terror, disgust, sadness. It is a whirlwind of emotions. The will bifurcates in wanting and not wanting to look, where curiosity thrives in the total examination of the abnormally inert bodies.


While the creatures float in their glass coffins, the awe-struck gaze shifts from disemboweled animal, to scalped, to genetically modified, to sausage. There is an uncomfortable comfort in the meat, the headless animals and the chops. It revolts me that it is out of habit, that the intact shark is a more terrifying image than a skinless sheep without head to be found.


(I report that head was later found in Analgesics (1993). Glass, silicone, acrylic, sheep’s head, formaldehyde solution.)


The whole situation is almost laughable, a description too nonsensical not to be real, the setting falls somewhere between a macabre laboratory and an antiseptic hell. Natural History, is a unique experience, but not for the faint hearted. My scattered curiosity led me to discover that parts are disassembled and separated for shipment each time they travel. First tank, then animal and finally highly toxic liquid that preserves corpses. Many of the pieces did not come from collections, which leads me to ask – Where is the storehouse of terrors that hosts such a collection?


A modern-day Hades, Hirst reminds us that it is “stupid” not to look at the inevitable. “I was taught to confront things I can’t avoid. Death is one of those things.” The ephemerality of flowers gives them beauty, the ephemerality of life gives us will.


In mainstream dialogue, the concept of the sublime is biased towards a positive feeling. However, in the eighteenth century aesthetics of Burke and Turner it is related to the awe of terror, vastness and the unknown when in safety. Hirst is a sublime contemporary artist, few are the present day visions that cause such visceral feelings, the shiver down the spine and the wrinkles on the forehead. The artist speaks of a “universal trigger”, an impossible indifference and the power of the universal. Life is also sublime.


This exhibition is on view indefinitely at the Gagosian Gallery in London


Originally published in Portuguese on Umbigo Magazine 

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