‘A fear of everything in life being so fragile and wanting to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased. Where it exists in its own space. The sculpture is spatially contained’ (D. Hirst, quoted in V. Button (ed.), The Turner Prize, exh. cat., London, Tate Britain, 1997, p. 114).
Executed in 1993, Where Will it End? is a key early work, directly related to the first Natural History works Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) and (Right), both from 1991, which represent the first example of the artist placing animals within formaldehyde. An almost Zen picture of blissful perfection with fish harmoniously swimming in the same direction, the equally spaced and rhythmic undulation of Where Will it End? offers a sublime visual representation of one of the key guiding concerns of life. Approaching the ninety-four shimmering fish, their pale gleaming scales evoke a feeling of fluid movement, the quicksilver flickers of a shoal seamlessly swimming in formation. Adopting the language of painting to suggest movement, in the same way the static lines of Bridget Riley’s Op Art appear to quiver, by facing the fish same direction the collective school appear to swim in unison. However upon closer examination the school is disbanded –paradoxically eliciting a feeling of stillness with each fish solitarily enshrined within its own glistening enclosure. Typical of Damien Hirst’s genius of taking the most complex philosophical concepts and assimilating them into the simplest visual presentation, by encasing the fish in formaldehyde and presenting them in the Minimalist perfection of the cabinet, the artist is able to convey a profound inquiry into human existence.
Taking the 20th century Modernist history of painting and the claims of artists - from de Stijl to Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism - that art had an almost divine ability to connect with something deep within the human soul, the formal ordering of the fish and the subtle variations of colour create peaceful and contemplative compositions, induces an almost spiritual sense of calm in those who stand before it. As Sarah Kent suggests, 'watching fish swim is said to soothe anxiety, but Hirst’s pallid shoal frustrates expectations – the fish simulate swimming in a poisonous medium and are inedible as well as lifeless’ (S. Kent, quoted in Shark Infested Waters, The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, London 1994, p. 38). Paradoxically existing in life and suspended animation, Where Will it End? encapsulates the artist’s continual spiritual and philosophical exploration into the fragility of life.
Presented in a cool glass fronted display cabinet, the crystal clear casings are a precursor to the glass vitrine that has become one of the most iconic formal tools for the artist and directly inform the Minimalist tendencies which underscore much of artist’s subsequent works. The early fish cabinets such as the present work hold a place of prominence in Hirst’s oeuvre alongside the iconic tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, exhibited to great acclaim at the Young British Artists show held at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992. Among the first of Hirst’s iconic Natural History works created in the early 1990s, Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) which consisted of fish sourced by the artist from Billingsgate market and was included in the artist’s first solo exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1991-1992, and has been included in every major survey of the artist since. The year 1993 was a pivotal moment in Hirst’s career, coinciding with the artist’s exhibition of Mother and Child Divided at the Venice Biennale to international acclaim and is indicative of the new found authority that Hirst and the young British artist (yBa) movement had achieved at this time, as evidenced by the artist’s nomination for the Turner prize the following year.
The formaldehyde performs a metaphorical role for the artist, offering a feeling of permanence amidst the impermanence of life. The virulent liquid encompasses the power to both preserve and harm, and serves as an aesthetic metaphor here preserving the illusion of their lives underwater. Speaking of this quality, the artist has stated he ‘employed [it] as much to communicate an idea as to preserve, act[ing] aesthetically to maintain an illusion of life in death’ (D. Hirst quoted in D. Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 2005, p. 9). From this elemental concept, the first vitrines came to encapsulate ‘a fear of everything in life being so fragile and wanting to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased. Where it exists in its own space. The sculpture is spatially contained’ (D. Hirst, quoted in V. Button (ed.), The Turner Prize, exh. cat., London, Tate Britain, 1997, p.114). The iconic formation of Hirst’s cabinets draw allusions to the artist’s earliest Medicine Cabinets and Spot Paintings created in the initial years of the 1990s, its cellular quality drawing correlations between art and science. The mechanism of the display cabinet assumes an authoritative museum-like presentation. The sleek, symmetrical cabinet creates a frame in which to observe the subtle variations of colours and sinuous form in each fish, the delicate scales enlivening the striking formal aesthetic presence. Contrasting the Minimalist exterior, the beguiling and reverential presentation of the vitrine extends upon Jeff Koons’ celebrated Equilibrium series from 1985. A contemporary and admirer of Koons, Hirst similarly invokes the authoritative visual language of science through his use of the cabinet, just as the American artist presented basketballs suspended in an aquarium-like vitrine as though they were specimens. Hirst employs the formal language of Minimalism to re-frame its content, transposing the rigid boundaries of their physicality to make a highly philosophical statement about our existence. Epitomizing the duality that exists between the presence of life and the inevitability of death, Where Will it End? provokes a visual, mental and visceral reaction in the viewer; the dialectic opposition forcing us to contemplate the unknowable and reminding us of our own mortality. As the artist stated: 'they all face the same way yet they can’t make contact the way they do in the sea … in life we’re separated by flesh and bones and you can’t really move beyond that’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 9).