'At a small metaphorical step from the pastoralism of dairymen and shepherds lie the sermons of every imagined village vicar, reliant on New Testament parables of flocks and lost sheep. The isolated lamb in Hirst's Away from the Flock 1994 has become fully as totemic a symbol of his artistic identity as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living from three years before. For its full effect, the isolation and vulnerability of the lamb requires a menace: the wolf in traditional European folklore (sin and the devil in the Christian allegory), in place of which the shark embodies the principle of predatory, soul-stealing monstrosity at a magnified intensity and thrillingly exotic guise more naturally suited to the environment of the tank' (A. Gallagher (ed.), Damien Hirst, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2012, p. 198).
'It's like creating emotions scientifically. What do you do if an animal is symmetrical? You cut it in half, and you can see what's on the inside and outside simultaneously. It's beautiful' (D. Hirst, quoted in S. Morgan, 'An Interview with Damien Hirst', D. Hirst, No Sense of Absolute Corruption, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 17).
A single sheep, suspended serenely within two perfectly proportioned Minimalist tanks, Away from the Flock (Divided) is an early masterpiece from Hirst's celebrated Natural History series. Created in 1995, the same year Damien Hirst was awarded the Turner Prize for his seminal divided sculpture Mother and Child (Divided), this work follows in a sequence of important bisected Natural History works. The Natural History works were first created with explicit realism in 1991, such as with 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. The following year, Hirst presented a stirring exhibition at the Venice Biennale with his first bisected sculpture Mother and Child (Divided) (1993), which now forms part of Astrup Fearnley Museum's collection in Oslo. This celebrated platform launched the artist to international prominence and in 1995 culminated with Away from the Flock (Divided). Romantically entitled, a solitary sheep separated from his flock, floats in an aquamarine-tinted formaldehyde solution; its hooves hover above the ground, frozen in lively gambol. A key early work, Hirst created four versions of Away from the Flock, with this work being the sole bisected example.
The sheep has become an important symbol for Hirst. First realised in 1994 for the group exhibition curated by Hirst, Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away, at the Serpentine Gallery, London, Hirst created the seminal work Away from the Flock, now housed in the collection of Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. A poignant expansion on the important 1994 work, a year later Hirst conceived Away from the Flock (Divided), the fleecy sheep dramatically bisected, theatrically revealing its interiority from within the narrow passage between the glass and steel vitrines. Hermetically contained in the inexorable solitude of the glass and steel vitrines, the title Away from the Flock was inspired by the 'tragic beauty' of the animal which the artist observed upon completing the 1994 work, and encapsulates the artist's continual spiritual and philosophical exploration into the fragility of life (D. Hirst quoted in M. D'Argenzio 'Like People, Like Flies: Damien Hirst Interviewed', The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, Naples, 2004, p.138).
Among the first bisected works, Away from the Flock (Divided) shares a dialogue with the iconic Mother and Child (Divided) (1993), and This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home (1996), inspired by Hirst's interest in animals commonly bred for food. Created in pursuit of familiarising people with the real source of butcher's meat, the artist created a series focused on domestic ungulates such as sheep and cattle, stating 'It's the banal animal that gives it the emotion. You wouldn't feel the same about a tiger' (D. Hirst, quoted in S. Morgan, 'An Interview with Damien Hirst', D. Hirst, No Sense of Absolute Corruption, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 18). As Helen Chadwick once observed, by refreshing the representation of these familiar animals, Hirst established a creative tension and contemporary dialogue by reinforcing 'the link between what we eat and what we are- the humans as animal' (H. Chadwick, quoted in S. Kent, Shark Invested Waters, London, 1994, p. 37). In this way, Away from the Flock (Divided) acts as a contemporary revisiting of the vanitas still-life; the lamb embalmed in formaldehyde acting as a symbolic reminder of the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. Hirst however radically transforms the tradition of memento mori, no longer distancing death through the medium of painting, but overtly exposing it through its direct physical presence.
Elevating the humble animal, Hirst presents the sheep in a romantic context, its title sharing a particular biblical resonance. The lamb has long been adopted by Christian iconography as a symbol for Christ's innocence and unsullied character and Christ often referred to his followers as his flock. In Away from the Flock (Divided), the stillness of the sheep is evocative of a martyred Christ, so that in the artist's words, 'you kind of feel sorry for it' (D. Hirst quoted in 'Like People, Like Flies: Damien Hirst Interviewed', Mirta D'Argenzio, The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, Naples 2004, p. 138). The phrase 'to leave the flock', still signifies breaking away from the church, and here, separated from its flock, the sheep here also appears to have gone astray. Hirst's work can be seen within the grand tradition of religious allegory painting, not unlike the pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt's pastoral painting Our English Coasts Strayed Sheep, 1852, in the collection of Tate, where straying sheep perilously wander near a cliff edge, acting as a metaphor for religious decay in England.
Contemporising this practice, Hirst deepens his dialogue through the striking juxtaposition of Minimalist industrial glass and steel vitrine against the 'realism' of the bisected sheep. Dramatically subverting the cool austerity of the smooth, planar borders, the raw emotive poignancy of the lifeless sheep underscores the 'fragility of existence' of the being within its confines (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, reduced edition 2005, p. 33). The geometric frame of the vitrine functions as a lens in which to observe this relationship; the clean, unbroken lines of steel and glass provide a sense of clinical order in which to scientifically examine the specimen within. As the artist stated, 'it's like creating emotions scientifically. What do you do if an animal is symmetrical? You cut it in half, and you can see what's on the inside and outside simultaneously. It's beautiful' (D. Hirst, quoted in S. Morgan, 'An Interview with Damien Hirst', D. Hirst, No Sense of Absolute Corruption, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 17). It is this stirring sense of curiosity conflated with the poignant stillness of the sheep that makes Away from the Flock (Divided) so affecting, embodying what the artist has described as the 'failure of trying so hard to do something that you destroy the thing that you're trying to preserve' (D. Hirst quoted in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 219).