‘Winter is the most beautiful of the seasons in some ways and it’s also the most truthful. Everything is laid bare, the end is fast approaching and there’s nowhere to hide. But ultimately it’s also a new beginning, a re-birth’ (D. Hirst in conversation with G. Burn, 2006).
‘Pills are the most phenomenal objects. It’s something to do with their minimal purity. Ultimately you just have no choice but to believe in them: these tiny, clean, brilliant Eucharistic forms set within nothingness, representing the infinite’ (D. Hirst in conversation with G. Burn, 2006).
‘It didn’t come from any of the things that I had, but it came from everything I had’ (D. Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 115).
‘I’ve always thought of the cabinet as being like a precipice or a void, it just consumes you, swallows you whole, and there’s obviously a huge irony in that because it’s really just a portrait of who we are, of these hopeful little things that we swallow to make ourselves feel more human, more alive, even immortal’ (D. Hirst, The Death of God, 2006, exh. cat., Galería Hilario Galguera, Mexico City, unpaged).
‘It’s like God should be, the way they sell you the pills, the forms, the utopia, the hope, the cure’ (D. Hirst, in an interview with H.-U. Obrist, In the darkest hour there may be light, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London 2007).
In Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Winter, thousands of beautifully hand-crafted pills – numbering the amount a single human might expect to consume in a lifetime – are precisely positioned on razor-sharp shelving and enshrined within a perfect, mirrored surgical steel cabinet. In its stark yet colourful splendour, the cabinet stands as an exquisite monument to Hirst’s unremitting investigation of life, death, and the human condition.
Executed in 2002, Lullaby Winter is one of four stainless steel cabinets by Hirst that engage with the time-honoured allegorical motif of the changing seasons, following in the footsteps of masters such as Antonio Vivaldi, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Monet and Marc Chagall. Each of Hirst’s four iterations – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – are defined by a unique combination of pills whose colours and arrangement are used to evoke the metaphorical attributes of each season. In Lullaby Winter, we are confronted with a dazzling white palette spiked with hues of pale pink, blue and pastel green, like a wide and expansive landscape, the effect is of a sparkling painterly interplay of light and colour. The meticulous rows of pills are replicated in the mirrored backplate, creating a clinical portrait of time and space, absence and loss, and yet, the resulting feeling is one of hope. As the artist explains: “Winter is the most beautiful of the seasons in some ways and it’s also the most truthful. Everything is laid bare, the end is fast approaching and there’s nowhere to hide. But ultimately it’s also a new beginning, a re-birth.”
For Hirst, the pills appeared to him as a way of filling what Max Beckmann described in 1915 as an “unending void” whose foreground we are compelled to fill in order to distract from its unfathomable depth. (Max Beckmann cited in Megan Craig, ‘Levinas and James: toward a pragmatic phenomenology’ (Indiana, 2010) p. 189). Hirst more recently expanded: “I’ve always thought of the cabinet as being like a precipice or a void, it just consumes you, swallows you whole, and there’s obviously a huge irony in that because it’s really just a portrait of who we are, of these hopeful little things that we swallow to make ourselves feel more human, more alive, even immortal.”
Hirst’s art has long been concerned with the consequences of living in a world consumed by the pharmaceutical industry’s promise of immortality. Many of his most iconic works tackle these themes, most notably the Medicine Cabinets and the Pharmaceutical Paintings. Lullaby Winter’s roots can be discerned in both these seminal series. Confronting the viewer as a brilliant wall-mounted monument, it assumes the spiritual power of a religious shrine. An altarpiece to medical science, Hirst’s cabinet presents an alternative system of organized belief: a new church that adopts pharmaceutical research as its sacrament. As the artist explained in 1993 after the first exhibition of the installation work Pharmacy (1992), pharmaceuticals are “very religious, kind of hopeful. There’s a lot of relocation of meaning in art, art has to reinvent itself every day. You try to pin these things down but there’s constant movement.” (Flash Art no. 169, 1993, interview with Adrian Dannatt). Much of Hirst’s oeuvre seeks to expose the ways in which the scientific advances in modern medicine have, for many, replaced our faith in the restorative power of religion. Harnessing the allegorical power of the four seasons, Hirst contrasts the transient passage of time with the life-giving power of modern medicine. In this way, the pills function both as a eulogy to the new religion of science, as well as a memento mori. Standing as a sublime meditation on mortality, the cabinet invites us to question ourselves, to confront our reflections in the mirrored steel behind the pills, and question whether the objects displayed within its shining interior are the answers to our dreams or prayers, or anything other than the talismans, relics and charms espoused by other faiths.
In Lullaby Winter, Hirst engages one of the central tenets of his practice: the distinction between the traditionally demarcated felds of science and art. Casting each pill as a meticulous simulacrum of its original, he highlights the disparity between our blind faith in medicine and our mistrust of the realities proposed by art. Hirst recalls one particularly pertinent memory of this tendency to invest an unquestioning faith in science, when accompanying his mother to the chemist; ‘she was getting a prescription, and it was, like, complete trust on the one level in something she’s equally in the dark about. In the medicine cabinets there’s no actual medicine in the bottles. It’s just completely packaging and formal sculpture and organized shapes. My mum was looking at the same kind of stuff in the chemist’s and believing in it completely. And then, when looking at it in an art gallery, completely not believing in it. As far as I could see, it was the same thing’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 25). As with so much of the artist’s work, the pill cabinets are fundamentally about our sociological need to construct belief systems out of nothing, about our need to come to terms with the often-mysterious fabric of existence. Lullaby Winter addresses this need and the aesthetic allure of the pills is rendered useless in the face of their unknown medical purpose, as Hirst reminds, ‘we have to simply believe that somehow our ills will be cured.’
Hirst has often stated his belief that art possesses its own uniquely curative powers. In this context, the use of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals as a subject, and indeed medium, within his art makes this credence wholly explicit. His deep enquiry into the nature and purpose of art relates to his continuing exploration of immortality in his work. As the artist explains, ‘I’ve always really loved this idea of art, maybe, you know, curing people. And I have this kind of obsession with the body. I like the way that you’ve got all these individual elements inside a cabinet related to organs inside a body’ (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 25). The meticulously arranged pills in Lullaby Winter can be seen to visually represent the ordered yet unintelligible chaos of the biological world. Like the coloured spots of the Pharmaceutical Paintings, the formal order of the pills is both harmonious and indecipherable. Through the rigour of their organisation, Hirst comments upon the human desire to classify and control in a bid to keep our deepest fears at bay. In Lullaby Winter, we witness Hirst at the height of his creative powers and at his most playful, deploying colour, form and precision-engineering in order to confront the fragile boundaries between art and science and, ultimately, life and death. As he himself has asserted, ‘Art is the closest you can get to immortality’ (D. Hirst, quoted in S. Kent, ‘Death Becomes Him’, Time Out, no. 1892, November 2006, p. 47).