Damien Hirst's all-consuming fascination with the inevitability of death and the fragility of life is best represented in his sculptures of preserved animals, with which he draws on the contrast between the mortality of the living thing and the immortality of the work of art. The human desire to preserve life and the impossibility of achieving this dream is perversely evinced in Untitled of 1995, a cabinet of curiosity containing forty-two fish that forms one of his early contributions to an ever-growing 'zoo of dead animals'.
Created in the year Hirst was awarded the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize, this work disrupts the unpredictable chaos of life. By organizing, classifying and ordering the world around him, Hirst makes an explicit attempt to deny the fundamental transience of life. The fish are presented as isolated components apparently swimming together in the same direction, thereby reflecting the sensations of belonging and alienation within a mass and suggesting the inevitable path toward death shared by each individual. The almost Minimalist repetition and serialisation of the vitrines is crucial here for the way in which they encase, monumentalise, and aestheticise their contents. In this way, the once living creatures are abstracted and sterilized, creating a distance from reality that reflects the humanities compulsive attempts to control and study the things one fears most. As Hirst explains, 'I like idea of trying to understand the world by taking things out of the world. You kill things to look at them... I hope at first glance it will look alive. It could have to do with the obsession with trying to make the dead live or the living live forever' (cited in G. Burn and D. Hirst, Damien Hirst, i want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, forever, now, London 1997, p. 7).
Suspended in liquid in shoal formation, the wide- eyed fish appear to cheat death, but no matter how physically intact and protected from decomposition, they are paradoxically lifeless and frozen. Hirst's obsession has led to the creation of contemporary vanitas objects, which challenge us to look at the wonders and horrors of the world in which we live. These specimens stand as symbolic reminders of the fleeting nature of life, just as a still-life painting from the seventeenth-century might. In these works, skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit and dead game commingle with luxury and abundance to instill a sense of the vanity of man's life and actions. Here, Hirst transforms the tradition of memento mori, no longer detaching death through the medium of painting, but overtly exposing it through its direct physical presence.