Approaching the end of Hong Kong Art Week, the wealthiest British artist, Damien Hirst, has roused the local art scene by launching his fourth Hong Kong solo exhibition after a six-year interval. Titled ‘Visual Candy And Natural History’, the exhibition runs from 23rd November, 2017 to 13th January, 2018 in Gagosian Gallery, showcasing Hirst’s two-themed artwork, namely ‘Visual Candy’ with his exuberant spot paintings and ‘Natural History’ with the animal installations. A total of 32 artworks are brought into four Gagosian halls, opening an enigmatical dialogue waiting to be untangled.

The exhibition greets visitors with Dove (1999) © Gagosian Gallery

Walking into the third hall, we will find the largest and most prominent installation amongst the ten ‘Natural History’ pieces: Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded (Figure 1). It displays a shark carcass dissected and stored into three glass tanks fully filled with blue formaldehyde liquid. The artwork emanates a visual effect of fear. Spanning about two-meter high and three-meter wide, the glass tanks exhibit monolithic physicality through a massive life-size shark and an enormous volume of toxic liquid. Hirst, moreover, leaves the shark’s jaw open with spiky teeth, projecting the shark as a gigantic and fierce ocean predator, who speaks of ‘fear of death’ to our contemporaries. The Artist said in an interview that he thinks the huge shark and water body can help tap into the sensation of fear and especially reminds him of the contemporary movie – Jaws.[1] More than fifty horror movies about shark were produced since the late 20th century, such as the Jaws series, Shark Attack series, Sharknado series and many more, reflecting the contemporary world’s fear of shark.

Damien Hirst, Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded (1993–99)  © Gagosian Gallery

Frightening as the shark, it, however, embodies an inner facet of fear. Hirst’s trisections reflect the shark’s mental fear about human’s slaughter. Somatic empathy has been adopted here: the bodily pain received by the shark during the scissions can be reflected onto the beholders. The shark’s mental fear, then, completes the picture, voicing over the open jaw with a struggling cry, which coats the artwork with manifold layers of fear – the fear of death. The shark is a conceptual art as a perishable ‘ready-made’ in preservative, probing into the idea of mortality. Fear of death strikes the mortals even after the carcass’ death. With formaldehyde, the preservation is a contemporary mummification as the ancient Egyptians.[2] The pickled shark reflects a longing for a (futile) life extension of the dead, echoing the contemporary mummification scenes for immortality.[3] However, as a contemporary memento mori,[4] the formaldehyde shark cannot avoid mortality forever just as Hirst’s previously rotten installation shows,[5] bringing to audiences an existentialist question about the significance for avoiding mortality. Progressing from memento mori, vanitas to embalmed carcass, Hirst deploys an avant-garde approach of applying animal corpse to debunk the futility in contemporary ‘immortality’.

Damien Hirst, Dippy Dappy Dabby (1993)

Next to the shark is Dippy Dappy Dabby (1993), an oil on canvas in the ‘Visual Candies’ series created during 1992-1994, as a distributary of Hirst’s mechanical spot paintings.[6] The series is characterised with clustered daubs of saturated hues, some are large impasto patches and some are petite as those of Seurat’s pointillist dots. In his book ‘On the Way to Work’, he proclaimed himself a colorist and made a comparison to Matisse.[7] Indeed, the ‘Visual Candies’ series was completed with a wild and saturated colour palette, and it is very similar to that of Fauves as “[having] an orgy of pure colours”.[8] In the composition, analogous to the action painting, Hirst followed his emotional intuition about colours, finishing the paintings with blobs of fauves paints in abstraction, which, for the artist, is simply a way “pinning down the joy of colour” without meaning.[9] The repetitive ‘Visual Candies’ seem to convey a sense of pleasure with his colorist art-making philosophy and amusing naming approach, like having some hedonic words of fun, happy, smile and jolly et cetera. As such Hirst compared his ‘Visual Candies’ to ‘sweets and drugs’, not only graphically on canvas, but mentally to audiences, as he discovered his ‘Visual Candies’ could ‘heal’ the beholders, like those mood-enhancing medicine, with an uplifting effect by simply viewing them.[10]

The ‘Visual Candy’ series and ‘Natural History’ installations. © Gagosian Gallery

However, Hirst’s belief towards drugs will subvert the surface optimism in the ‘Visual Candies’. After his trophy in Turner Prize 1995, he went on a three-year break without practising any art, taking drugs with Keith Allen. His firsthand experience taught him a great lesson in life. He believes drugs only produce an illusionary uplift, which will be succeeded by a drug-induced downcast. “You take the drugs; you have a great high time. You go incredibly high up. As a payback you go incredibly low downs. And then you get back to normal.”[11] And he enjoyed the low down moments the most as it can help him better prepare for the real breakdown in life.

Damien Hirst, the winner of Turner Prize 1995 © Sabotagecover

To him, most people will, however, avoid the latter downfall by continuing their indulgence on more drugs. This addictive desire for more is lucidly displayed with the repetitious ‘Visual Candies’ blotches, and the addiction cycle is curated with an incremental arrangement of ‘Visual Candies’ paintings in each hall: first hall has one ‘Visual Candy’, second hall three, third hall nine and fourth hall ten.

The ‘Visual Candy’ series in the fourth hall. © Gagosian Gallery

Although the ‘Visual Candies’ and ‘Natural History’ series diverge on style and theme, their cryptic dialogues coalesce into revealing human’s depravity of avoidance. With the help of medicine, human avoids mortality and sorrow, yet futilely with the inevitable counterattacks, which lead to infinite depravity by the addi(c)tive medical applications. Damien Hirst taps into the relations between life and medicine with his avant-garde and versatile art making across media and genre, establishing a highly successful communication to the contemporary public.

 


[1] Tate Modern, “Damien Hirst at Tate Modern,” video, 12:50, April 4, 2012. https://youtu.be/YWSb9QMlLoQ.

[2] Ancient Egyptians believe the deceased souls ka will continue surviving on earth forever and therefore provide them the mummified body for dwelling. See Fred Kleiner, “Ancient Egyptian Art,” in Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise Western History (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010), 44.

[3] Many political leaders, like Lenin and Mao are mummified with formaldehyde. Mao Zedong’s body was preserved in formaldehyde not on his will, which was cremation. It was the Chinese officials’ hope to embalm his body with formaldehyde for a permanent display in Tiananmen Square’s memorial hall.

[4] Damien Hirst said in an interview of using corpse as memento mori: “(Revealing Animal in a really vulnerable way) seemed like a new way of showing those old memento mori pieces” see Elena Geuna, “In Conversation with Damien Hirst,” in Freedom not Genius – Works from Damien Hirst’s Murderme Collection (London: Other Criteria Books, 2013), 99.

[5] Nigel Reynolds, “Hirst’s pickled shark is rotting and needs to be replaced. Should it still be worth £6.5m?,” The Telegraph, June 28, 2006, 12:01 a.m. BST, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1522516/Hirsts-pickled-shark-is-rotting-and-needs-to-be-replaced.-Should-it-still-be-worth-6.5m.html.

[6] Damien Hirst, Jonathan Barnbrook and Robert Violette, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now (London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1997), 198.

[7] Hirst and Burn, On the Way to Work, 69.

[8] David Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn Linduff, “Toward Abstraction: The Modernist Revolution, 1904-1914,” in Art Past, Art Present (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), 547.

[9] Hirst and Burn, On the Way to Work, 119.

[10] Alexander C. T. Geppert, “Alien Spotting: Damien Hirst’s Beagle 2 Mars Lander Calibration Target and the Exploitation of Outer Space,” in Imagining outer space: European astroculture in the twentieth century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 309.

[11] Hirst and Burn, On the Way to Work, 104-105.