This piece on Damien Hirst (extracted from my catalogue essay for his Tate Modern exhibition) appeared recently in the Daily Telegraph.
As a composition, the black and white photograph is unremarkable: no doubt it was hastily taken, for reasons made clear by its content. On the left is a young man (he was 16 at the time) with dark bristling hair and a chunky ribbed sweater, leaning low over a polished steel surface, the raised and squared-off edge of which reveals it to be a mortuary table.
The young man is looking directly at the camera and grinning broadly, perhaps a little too broadly to convince us of his levity, because beside him on the table is the fat, bald, severed head of a man in late middle age. They look, this grinning boy and his new dead acquaintance, like the traditional graphic personifications of Comedy and Tragedy: one maniacally beaming or guffawing, the other frowning and puckered, mouth down-turned.
Damien Hirst’s With Dead Head 1991 is in part a record of his early fascination with the physical reality of death and the medico-scientific apparatuses that surround it. In his late teens, partly under the influence of Francis Bacon, he amassed – mostly by stealing – a large collection of pathology books, and was especially keen on volumes concerned with burns. He was drawn, he says, to the combination of hideous subject matter and pristine, detached photography; the books contained “delicious, desirable images”.
As a precursor to Hirst’s later conjunctions of dead animal matter – or representations of human death – with the gleaming metal and glass vitrine, With Dead Head is almost too good to be true. Here, it seems to proclaim, is Damien Hirst doing what we think Damien Hirst is meant to do: confronting us with the dismal but fascinating actuality of death and adopting a gleeful attitude to mortality.
In fact, Hirst recalled in 1992, the smile was a result of his panic in the literal presence of the fact of death: “If you look at my face, I’m actually going: ‘Quick. Quick. Take the photo.’ It’s worry… I’m absolutely terrified. I’m grinning, but I’m expecting the eyes to open and for it to go: ‘Grrrrraaaaagh!’”
The photograph was taken during a visit to the university anatomy department in Leeds, where Hirst would regularly (thanks to his girlfriend’s mother, who worked in the microbiology department) draw cadavers and body parts. It is shocking and not shocking in some of the ways that are claimed of Hirst’s work by its detractors and supporters alike. There is first of all a type of disapproval, and the assertion that much of Hirst’s early works are not art or have no place in art. Then there is the more sophisticated admission that these are indeed works of art, but the artist is clearly “out to shock”.
Among the ambiguous emotions or impulses that Hirst has long entertained and encouraged in himself and his public, curiosity is a constant. What is With Dead Head if not a tribute to the young artist’s curiosity and a challenge to our own? The same point may be made of the Medicine Cabinets, the divided animals suspended in formaldehyde (“divided” being Hirst’s neutral term for the laborious and messy process of bisecting or slicing a cow or sheep) and the anatomical models such as Hymn 1999-2005.
Historically, “curiosity” has been a contested term: it is both the necessary energy behind scientific inquiry and a scandalous departure from the protocols of knowledge. Curiosity is a type of indulgence, at worst a mere entertainment as opposed to an academically sanctioned investigation of the physical world. We might think here of the practice of anatomy as a public spectacle, and the controversies that attended it for centuries.
There was a moral suspicion of curiosity still partly in place in the 16th and 17th centuries, by which time the “cabinet of curiosities” had none the less become central to conceptions of knowledge and how its results were to be displayed or communicated. A precursor of the museum vitrine, the cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammer brought together specimens and artefacts from disparate fields of knowledge – natural and artificial, mundane and bizarre, authentic and fake – so that they inhabited the same physical and conceptual space. Anything and everything, in this period of promiscuous intellectual activity, might be the object of the collector’s curious gaze.
The cabinet or vitrine is also an image of curiosity itself. And no artist has in recent decades been so determined and daring in deploying the vitrine as Hirst. With Hirst’s cabinets, we shuttle constantly between immersion in and aesthetic distance from the object of curiosity. Whether it is the cow’s head and countless teeming flies of A Thousand Years, or the notorious shark of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, the work relies on a fascination with the physical presence of death and a reflexiveness on the part of the viewer regarding his detachment from the dead thing. These are works that make one feel distinctly uncomfortable about feeling comfortable in the face of death.
If With Dead Head was Hirst’s first memento mori, such self-advertised images of mortality have proliferated in his work over the past quarter century. To put the point crudely, there are skulls everywhere in his art. For the Love of God 2007, his diamond-encrusted platinum skull, is the most notorious of these. But that work, with its luxurious repurposing of familiar iconography, is also a clue to the exact nature of Hirst’s engagement with death.
It is not a matter only of imagery or iconography: For the Love of God is as much a work about the transmutation of matter as about the images that attach to our ideas or experience of death. The skull is nothing more or less than an alchemical object: a death’s-head sublimed (as alchemists traditionally put it) out of base organic matter and into the stuff of wealth and glamour, certainly, but also the stuff of an inhuman immortality. The diamond skull is an image, or rather an embodiment, of human frailty and extreme endurance or hubristic hope of such endurance.
In that sense, for all its supposed – and consciously courted – vulgarity, the work that it most resembles is not a hard and pristine vitrine but a heart-stoppingly fragile one: What Goes Up Must Come Down 1994. Here, a ping-pong ball hovers on the jet of air from a hairdryer installed in a Plexiglas cylinder. As an image of physical frailty it is poetic and funny, but it seems actually to depict something more precise than simply a “life” hanging in the balance.
There are numerous instances of religious and specifically Christian imagery in Hirst’s art – consider his several crucified skeletons – but when one says that this frail and floating object is nothing other than a human soul or essence, one should understand that word as much in physiological terms as theological: for what Hirst depicts time and again is nothing other than a being on the edge of extinction, delicately embodied and about to be disembodied.
This is the final significance of his fixation with corpses, morgues, medicine and the theatrics of dissection: the true subject of that early photograph is not the gruesome head or the still adolescent bravura of the photographic prank, but the smile on the face of an artist who already knows he is doomed.