Damien Hirst: Facing Death, Searching for Life

When I saw the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London, I had only known Hirst’s work from headlines. My impression from a few poor reproductions was that he was all about death. The retrospective told me that I had been, well, dead wrong. He has a lot to say about life and the way we choose to live it. This essay explores the dialogue in Hirst’s work between life, death and resurrection.

Twelve vitrines neatly organized into two rows of six sit on the polished concrete floor of the White Cube gallery in London. The glass boxes filled with formaldehyde showcase twelve skinned sheep heads representing the heads of the twelve disciples. All the frames of the vitrines are white, save for one black, indicating the presence of the traitor Judas, whose eyes are bound in a way that seems to signify spiritual blindness.

Twelve glass and steel cabinets are mounted to the gallery walls, displaying the grisly means of each disciple’s death. The symmetry of the installation articulates a central isle, beckoning the viewer to walk toward the thirteenth vitrine placed in the center at the head of the gallery. But this glass case conspicuously lacks a severed head—there is nothing to preserve, nothing to become a relic. On the wall behind the empty case, an empty black cabinet divided into three compartments is topped by a succession of shelves holding clear glass vessels that move inexorably up towards the apex of the installation that culminates in a single white dove. Two perfectly square pale blue canvases framed in white balance the vertical movement of the central column rising from the empty vitrine representing Christ—a subtle Trinitarian statement?

When Adrian Searle, a critic for The Guardian, assessed this installation, part of Damien Hirst’s 2003 show Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, he inexplicably dismissed the religious content of a work that unabashedly draws on Christian imagery, remarking, “I don’t think Hirst is making any real stab at theology.”[1] One wonders, then, what exactly Hirst is doing instead. James Elkins’s observation that from an art historian’s perspective it seems “awkward to be unable to speak about the religious meaning of works that clearly have to do with religion”[2] offers a particularly adroit response to Searle’s preemptive dismissal.

Those who have attempted to explicate the theological content of the work have mainly concluded that Hirst was questioning the veracity of basic Christian doctrine—the possibility of redemption and the promise of life after death. Andrew Wilson gives voice to this interpretation:

Where Hirst had previously approached death as the unknowable experience that gives meaning to life, here he gives it a concrete image in terms of a questionable belief: for the disciples, death is the moment at which life—eternal life—can be attained. That belief is neither uncomplicated nor certain, and Hirst’s work seems to ask what happens when it fails or is shown to be false.[3]

Wilson’s reading of the work gives undue attention to the vitrines holding the heads of the disciples while almost willfully disregarding the empty vitrine placed front and center. If Hirst really wanted to make such a dogmatic statement about the falsity of the Christian hope of resurrection, then why not place a sheep’s head in this thirteenth case?

Hirst’s decision to leave the vitrine empty is the visual equivalent to one of the most fundamental assertions of Christian faith—“Christ is risen.” Whether or not the viewer responds, “He is risen indeed,” is an open question. Looking at the elements of the installation, Adrian Searle concludes that “it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to approach any of this except with extreme doubt,”[4] insinuating that doubt is the only appropriate response in the face of such bold allusions to the biblical narrative.

In interviews Hirst, too, has proclaimed himself an agnostic, expressing the same doubt articulated by Searle.[5] Yet his installation does nothing if not reassert in arrestingly modern visual language the ancient, intriguing claim of an empty tomb. The direct simplicity of the statement “Jesus is not here, he is risen,” spoken by the angelic messengers to the women who first encountered a vacant space where Jesus’ body should have been, belied the complexity of the implications of the claim that would take hundreds of years of complex theological and semantic debate to work out.

It is as if Hirst takes the viewer back to that disorienting morning when Mary Magdalene returned from the empty tomb to tell the disciples of her strange discovery: Jesus’ body was gone. They, like Searle, responded with doubt. The critical reception to Hirst’s piece validates the accuracy of the account in the Gospels that records the incredulity of the apostles in the face of the impossible report.[6] Perhaps Hirst intuitively sensed that a twenty-first-century audience would respond precisely like a first-century one—with extreme doubt.

If there is one thing that critics do not doubt, it is Hirst’s modernist credentials. Love him or hate him, there is a general consensus that Hirst has absorbed, assimilated and reconfigured in his own way myriad streams that defined modernism: Francis Bacon’s dark expressionist paintings, Duchamp’s revolutionary ready-mades, Kurt Schwitters’s collages, Robert Rauschenburg’s assemblages, Warhol’s Pop sensibility, Sol LeWitt’s disciplined minimalism and Jeff Coon’s slick commercial-inspired productions. In 2012, the Tate Modern in London hosted the first comprehensive retrospective of Hirst’s work, a bellwether indication of his significance[7] and an opportunity to demonstrate how the “grandiose themes” of life and death and their relationship to science, commerce and faith have evolved over the course of the artist’s twenty-year career.[8] The artist himself has spoken openly of his fascination with death:

I’d always thought about death since I was seven years old. I remember when it first dawned on me that it was inevitable, and I could never stop thinking about it…. I’ve thought about it ever since, and every day I think about it, it’s different. It goes from being impossible to being the only thing. I remember thinking that, in a way, it’s what gives life its beauty.[9]

The installation A Thousand Years (1990), recreated for the retrospective at the Tate, is one of Hirst’s works that most eloquently embodies the fragility of existence. As an “allegory for the cycle of life and death,”[10] the piece has a visceral appeal. Inside a steel framed glass room the congealed blood pooled beside a severed calf’s head nourishes recently hatched flies that emerge from a white cube punctured on each side by one black hole. Living, breeding flies populate and animate the sterile space until they are drawn to the light of a trap and then exterminated, their dead carcasses littering the ground. Critic Andrew Wilson believes the piece illustrates that “the whole lifecycle is in effect the chance result of a throw of the dice.”[11] It is almost as if Hirst has taken up the cry of the preacher of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity…. What has been is what will be,/ and what has been done is what will be done,/ and there is nothing new under the sun.”[12] The power of Hirst’s piece depends on the viewer’s identification with the flies, on the ability to equate the brevity and absurdity of the life of the flies with our own in a way that again recalls Ecclesiastes:

For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?[13]

This is nothing if not a sober realism of the state of fallen human existence,[14] the image and the word calling to mind the futility of life that ends irrevocably in death.

The question of the preacher of Ecclesiastes lingers, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward?” It is a question famously echoed by the painter Paul Gauguin at the dusk of the nineteenth century in the title of one of his most iconic paintings, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Although Hirst does not address the question of a destination beyond death directly in A Thousand Years, his fly and butterfly paintings seem a serious nod in that direction. In Black Sun (2004) the dead flies that proliferated on the floor of A Thousand Years make their way onto a circular canvas. Secured with resin, the dense mass of black flies resembles nothing so much as a writhing pit fastened to a gallery wall, almost as if Hirst is conjuring up a circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno.

But Hirst, like Dante, doesn’t leave us in the mire; he also offers a vision of paradise in the butterfly paintings that serve as a counterpoint to the dark vision of the flies. “When you get too deep into the darkness,” Hirst reflects, “you need to move it towards the light as well. The butterflies were a good way to get away from the flies: butterflies living instead of flies dying.”[15]

Hirst began working with butterflies in the early 1990s when his work In and Out of Love featured living butterflies emerging from cocoons attached to white canvases, a logistically complicated work recreated for the retrospective at the Tate. In Christian symbolism butterflies allude to the possibility of spiritual transformation and physical resurrection, in a way that flies never could.[16] When Hirst began arranging the brilliantly colored wings of butterflies in intricate patterns illuminating the surfaces of canvases shaped in the form of stained glass windows, the associations with resurrection and allusions to a transcendent, divine realm became even stronger.

Sympathy in White Major—Absolution II (2006), a circular canvas on which pale blue and yellow butterfly wings form a harmonious, luminous pattern, functions like an alternate vision to Black Sun—one radiates light and beauty, while the other absorbs it. Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007), a triptych of arched windows created from butterfly wings of jewel tones, is breathtaking in its scale and vibrancy, and surprising in its utter lack of irony—it is as if Hirst has transported sacred space into the gallery, giving the viewer a glimpse of paradise without sardonic commentary.[17] Ann Gallagher remarks on the butterfly paintings, “The intense beauty almost obliterates the reality of death preserved. Duality and symmetry proliferate in Hirst’s work with its abundance of pairings, divisions, inversions, contrasts, juxtapositions.”[18]

The dialectic between death and life, and between science and faith, at the heart of Hirst’s work has prompted some to call him “a visionary prankster,”[19] but one critic suggests he may be more like a homilist:

He (Hirst) becomes something more like a country poet or Anglican homilist…. At a small metaphorical step from the pastoralism of dairymen and shepherds lie the sermons of every imagined village vicar, reliant on New Testament parables of flocks and lost sheep. The isolated lamb in Hirst’s Away from the Flock 1994 has become fully as totemic a symbol of his artistic identity as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living from three years before.

The symbolic syntax of Hirst’s work draws so heavily on biblical imagery that it is no wonder the artist could be compared to a preacher, but a preacher exploring the complexities of existence without being entirely sure where ultimate reality lies. Still, he seems to believe that the search itself has meaning and, in this sense, Hirst’s playful earnestness is a refusal to succumb to existential absurdity. In an interview with Hirst, Nicholas Serota prompts, “You said once, ‘Art can heal.’” Hirst responds, “You hope so. It’d be a very sad world without it. It’s just humans trying to avoid death and trying to make more of it than there is. It’s decorating the cave, isn’t it? But, once you’ve decided that you’re going to decorate it, then the question is, ‘With what?’ That’s what the whole of art is.”[20]

If the inevitability of death is a pervading, inescapable theme of Hirst’s work, then the implicit challenge is, “How will you manage this reality? How will you live in the face of death?”

Hirst’s work is magnificent in the way it pares down the possible responses to three. First, you can have faith in science, medicating yourself, cheating death as long as possible while feeling as good as pharmaceutically feasible, hence Hirst’s medicine cabinets and works like Lullaby, the Seasons (2002) and Trinity—Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology (2000). Second, you can have faith in art and money, two items that in Hirst’s oeuvre are essentially synonymous, decorating Plato’s proverbial cave, sustaining yourself with beauty and the comforts of the material world, hence Hirst’s spin paintings and vitrines filled with fabricated diamonds like Fragments of Paradise (2008) or Judgement Day (2009). Finally, you can have faith in the divine, and particularly in a God-man whose resurrection and ascension opened the way to a transcendent reality offering hope of life beyond death, hence Romance in the Age of Uncertainty and butterfly paintings like Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007).

Hirst says that he’s made his choice—he believes in art; he plans to decorate the cave. But his integrity is displayed by the fact that he doesn’t impose his choice on the viewer. He offers the most compelling visual impression of each possible response, asking the viewer to decide in which reality she will choose to live, and ultimately die.


[1] Adrian Searle, “So what’s new?” review of Romance in the Age of Uncertainty. Guardian.co.uk, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/sep/09/1.

[2] Elkins, The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, 22.

[3] Andrew Wilson, “Believer,” in Damien Hirst, ed. Ann Gallagher (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 215-216.

[4] Adrian Searle, “So what’s new?” review of Romance in the Age of Uncertainty. Guardian.co.uk, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/sep/09/1.

[5] Damien Hirst, interview with Nicholas Serota in Damien Hirst, ed. Ann Gallagher (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 95.

[6] Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-11.

[7] The solo show attracted an unprecedented number of visitors, making 2012 the busiest year in Tate history. “Tate Modern reveals record visitor numbers,” Guardian.co.uk, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/jan/08/tate-modern-record-visitor-numbers.

[8] Roberta Smith’s comment that Hirst tackles “grandiose themes” was in the context of a review of his 2000 show at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, NYC, but it is equally applicable to the retrospective at the Tate. Roberta Smith, “In Damien Hirst’s Big, Shiny Universe, Glass and Steel Meet Pills and Pain,” nytimes.com, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/29/arts/art-review-damien-hirst-s-big-shiny-universe-glass-steel-meet-pills-pain.html.

[9] Hirst, Damien Hirst, 95.

[10] Brian Dillon, “Ugly Feelings,” in Damien Hirst, 26.

[11] Wilson, “Believer,” in Damien Hirst, 207.

[12] Ecclesiastes 1:2b, 1:9, ESV.

[13] Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, ESV.

[14] The Christian may also read in the inclusion of the calf’s head an allusion to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament presided over by the Levitical priesthood that was unable to entirely atone for the sins of the people in the way that Jesus’ sacrifice ultimately would. See Hebrews 7:26-28.

[15] Hirst, interview with Nicholas Serota in Damien Hirst, 96.

[16] George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 2.

[17] The lack of irony in Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007) seems to contradict Elkins’ argument that for work with religious themes to be acceptable “irony must pervade the art.” Elkins, The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, 47.

[18] Ann Gallagher, Damien Hirst, 18.

[19] Michael Bracewell, “Beautiful inside my Head Forever,” in Damien Hirst, 180.

[20] Hirst, interview with Nicholas Serota in Damien Hirst, 97.