Few artists divide opinion like Damien Hirst. For many, Hirst represents everything that’s wrong with ‘modern art’ – crude and confusing work, selling for obscene amounts of money, and earning him the Turner Prize in 1995. And yet Tate Modern saw fit to select Hirst as the British artist to be honoured as part of the 2012 cultural Olympiad, as thousands of visitors flock to London for the Olympic Games. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the themes in Hirst’s work, and we’ll think about how they connect with the truth about Jesus.
In all of Hirst’s work, the idea of mortality and death looms large. Sometimes it’s really obvious (like a skull covered in diamonds), and sometimes less so, but it’s always there. It’s where most of the shock and distaste comes from – we’re shocked by his choices of materials and metaphors, but I think mostly we’re shocked because he deals with death frankly, even brutally. Death is something we rarely talk about in polite company, but Hirst doesn’t just talk about it – he hits you in the face with the reality of your own mortality, and then kicks away everything you could hold onto for support.
The Phyisical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992) is probably the piece for which Hirst is most well known – if you ask most people about contemporary art, they’ll think of this. It features a 14-foot Tiger Shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, and it brings you face-to-face with death. The shark is dead, but it looks dangerously alive with its mouthful of sharp teeth. Hirst specifically designed the tank so there’s enough room inside for the shark and you so that, as with most of Hirst’s work, you’re made painfully aware of your own mortality. It has a lot in common with another of Hirst’s controversial pieces, and the one which effectively kick-started his career, A Thousand Years (1990). A gruesome combination of flies and rotting meat, thousands of lives begin and end before your eyes, making the reality of life and death unavoidable as an insect-o-cutor sizzles. A large die, with all sides bearing the same number, hints at the inevitability of it all.
But Hirst doesn’t just remind us of our mortality – he also exposes some of the ways we try to ignore that reality. In particular he focuses on are religion and science.
Another of his formaldehyde sculptures, Away from the Flock (1994) has obviously religious connotations. Besides the Biblical references to sheep and shepherds, perhaps it’s a nod to the idea of the faithful ‘flock’ nodding passively through the Sunday sermon? And isn’t being a ‘sheep’ often used negatively, a metaphor for unthinking compliance? But the lamb in this piece is ‘away from the flock,’ and that isn’t a good place to be if you’re a lamb; there’s comfort and security in joining the rest of the flock and collectively ignoring reality.
Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people,” and Hirst would seem to agree that religion is one of the ways we numb our senses to the inevitability of death. Religious imagery recurs often in Hirst’s work – his 2007 shows Beyond Belief and Superstition were full of such work. Hirst suggests that we find hope in religion in the face of grim reality. False hope, but hope nonetheless.
But religion is not the only place where we find false hope. In Pharmacy (1992), Hirst has recreated a pharmacy, with the viewer taking on the privileged position of the pharmacist. Hirst sees science as an alternative belief system, with its own temples of health and life-giving sacraments, and its own priests to administer them. Then in the middle of Pharmacy there’s another insectocutor. Even here, in this temple to health and life, there’s a constant reminder of death.
Hirst’s Pharmaceuticals series, often simply called his ‘spot paintings,’ feature an array of coloured spots in potentially-infinite combinations, and each one is randomly named after a drug. Hirst’s point is that the pharmaceutical industry is baffling to most of us. We blindly put our trust in doctors and pharmacists to give us life-extending drugs, but really we have no idea. Blind faith is equally blind whether it is placed in religion or science.
One of Hirst’s most preposterous works has to be For the Love of God (2007), a replica human skull cast in platinum and encrusted with diamands. It hit the headlines after going on sale for £50million, but it also does what so much of Hirsts work is about. It is a reminder of the reality of death, and of the ways we try to escape it. We may not try to hide our mortality with diamonds, but what about make up, or surgery, or clothes or reputation? The piece was apparently named when Hirst’s mother cried, “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?!” But it is also when we’re confronted with the reality of death that questions of God’s existence and his character often arise.
Hirst attacks science and religion in equal measure, dismantling the false hope we put in them in order to evade the reality of death. But this is where he runs out of things to say. In the place of false hope, he doesn’t have any real hope to offer us. In fact, Hirst is pretty honest about his lack of answers. He’s said: “I sometimes feel that I have nothing to say and I want to communicate this.” He’s also said, “…whenever I look at the question of how to live, the answer’s always staring me in the face. I’m already doing it.” Life is just something you get on with, don’t worry about what happens next.
As we’re brought face-to-face with our mortality, is that enough? Just carry on living until you have to stop. Of course, he might be right. We might just live in a cold, directionless, hopeless world. If we do, then all we can do is make the best of it before our time runs out. But what if there is real hope?
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus meets a man called Jairus, a local religious leader. Jairus comes and throws himself at Jesus’ feet because his 12year old daughter is terminally ill and he’s desperate. Jesus goes with him but he stops to heal another desperately sick woman. By the time he’s finished a servant arrives and says, “Your daughter is dead, don’t bother the teacher any more.”
But Jesus replies, “don’t be afraid; just believe and she will be healed.” This is a huge claim for him to make, isn’t it? He’s asking Jairus to believe that he can heal his daughter, even though she’s already dead…
When they get to the house the funeral traditions have already started, but Jesus tells them to stop because she isn’t dead – she’s just asleep. And they laugh at him – they know a dead body when they see one! But Jesus’ words aren’t a misdiagnosis, he’s talking about what death means to him. He goes into the room, takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up… and she does! Jesus is able to bring this dead girl back to life. For Jesus, death is no more final than going to sleep.
And this incident points forward to Jesus’ own resurrection. The one who can bring others back to life rose from the dead himself. Jesus was crucified, but three days later he came back to life, and he appeared to hundreds of witnesses over the following weeks. His resurrection showed that his death had achieved what he said it would achieve. In dying, he dealt with the sin that separates us from God and all of its consequences, including death itself.
Jesus offers hope in the face of death, but this isn’t the kind of empty hope offered by religious ritual or medical science. This is life as it’s meant to be lived, knowing that we’re loved and accepted by the God who made us, and enjoying life with him forever. Christians can face the reality of death head-on, just like Damien Hirst. But where he runs out of answers, Jesus has something to say. He is the one who really can offer life, because he’s been there.
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If you have any questions about this article, or would like to meet up and chat with someone about it, please email us. Also for a simple explanation of the Christian faith see the ‘Two ways to live‘ interactive presentation.
Shark: © Justin Williams. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jwillys/2142368293
Sheep: © Jim Linwood. http://www.flickr.com/photos/brighton/5169722956/
Skull: © Aaron Weber. http://www.flickr.com/photos/secretlyironic/524919354/