Created in 1994, the year before he was awarded the Turner Prize, Away from the Flock is one of the most iconic artworks of Damien Hirst’s career. Part of the group of celebrated sculptures collectively titled Natural History, it is among the earliest of his artworks to use formaldehyde, a material that has since become synonymous with his name. Consisting of a carcass of a lamb encased in a sleek white tank, Away from the Flock raises ancient philosophical questions in a boldly contemporary way. Following on directly from some of Hirst’s most famous works, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living (1991) and Mother and Child (Divided) (1993), Away from the Flock explores fundamental tensions between life and death, and queries the very nature of existence itself. Unveiled for the first time at the group exhibition Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away, curated by Hirst at the Serpentine Gallery in 1994, this work is unusual for existing in four versions, all made in the same year. This version is distinguished by the lamb’s black head and legs and also its prancing pose, which gives the impression it is leaping from the ground.
Testament to the importance of Away from the Flock, other editions of this work are owned by Tate Britain (in conjunction with the National Galleries of Scotland), and The Broad. The version owned by Tate was shown at Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997, a ground-breaking group exhibition which not only reinvigorated the British art scene but redefined the boundaries of contemporary art altogether. Hirst was among the select group of artists included in the show who became famous as the YBAs (Young British Artists), celebrated for their brazen honesty, their boldness in pushing art into unexplored territories, and their talent for delivering complex ideas with a powerful visual punch.
Away from the Flock employs Hirst’s signature structure of a floor-based glass vitrine, in which the animal is centrally suspended. The tank has a thick steel border, which frames the lamb from all angles, like a conventional portrait. Aquamarine-coloured formaldehyde fills the entirety of the tank, giving the incongruous impression that the lamb is floating in water. Having mainly used sea creatures in his previous formaldehyde works, Hirst embraced the strange juxtaposition that a farm animal presented, saying: “When I did the sheep I remember thinking that it might not work, because what was good about the fish was that you were putting them into their own habitat, liquid, but then with the sheep, it just had a brilliant sort of tragedy. Or something gentle. That was the thing: it wasn’t a shock, it just had this extra quality. It almost gave it personality, to put it into the liquid. And it didn’t look as if it was drowning, it looked serene” (D. Hirst, quoted in J. Leighton, 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015).
The lamb’s “tragic beauty”, as Hirst once described it, gave rise to the title of the work, which alludes not only to the lamb’s separation from living things, but also to the lamb’s symbolic resonance within the Christian faith (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. 134-138). As the curator Ann Gallagher has explained, “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).
Hirst, who was raised a Catholic, often incorporates objects or animals which carry both religious and prosaic significance into his work. Farm animals evoke this dichotomy well, featuring in significant pieces such as This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home (1996) and Mother and Child (Divided) (1993). On this choice, he has said: ‘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). The poignancy of these works, Hirst knows, lies not simply in the physical encounter with a dead animal—this can be seen in any high street butchers—but in the sudden awareness of the absence of life. Frozen in time, the lamb’s uncanny liveliness is a reminder of its innocence and what it has lost, making its untimely death far more affecting.
A dark yet tender work, Away from the Flock is an exemplary illustration of how Hirst works at the borders between science, art and religion. The Minimalist white tank in which the sheep is encased carries clinical connotations. Functioning as both a framing device and as part of the piece, the tank simultaneously preserves and presents. The delicacy of the animal’s position—limbs outstretched, head slightly tilted—speaks of the underlying fragility of life and, in Hirst’s words, the age-old paradox “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).