‘An obsession with death is a celebration of life’
‘I thought if one said something, then two said it stronger. I always liked to admit and deny something at the same time’
‘Where’s God now? God’s fucked off. So all these big issues, like art and science and cancer, are all clambering about on this barren landscape where God used to exist’
Damien Hirst’s Salvation/Damnation (2004) is an enthralling double vision of life and death. Two sharp triangular frames are filled with insects, to dramatically different effect. Salvation forms a beautiful display of butterflies fixed in blue paint; arranged in a kaleidoscopic, radial pattern and their wings gleaming with facets of wildly varied iridescent colour, they resemble a gorgeous stained-glass window. Damnation, in stark contrast, is a void of solid and compelling darkness, formed by the massed bodies of thousands of black flies in resin. The Victorian Gothic edge of entomology encounters the vibrant and morbid strains of Catholic spectacle, bringing together the richly poetic intersections of art, science and religion that have informed all the most iconic works of Hirst’s practice.
Hirst’s preoccupation with death aligns him firmly with the vanitas tradition, which had its artistic heyday in the symbolic still-lives of Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Much as these painters of old employed rotting fruit, flowers and skulls to remind us of death and the transience of being, Hirst’s animals, whether livestock, sharks, or insects, underscore the evanescence of life by facing us boldly with the physical facts of death. In the present works he takes butterflies and flies – two protagonists frequently found in still-life paintings, denoting the fragility of worldly beauty and the inevitability of its decay – and paradoxically preserves them for eternity. The resin- or paint-bound afterlife of the insects proves a powerful aesthetic metaphor; like saints’ bones, the butterflies form a bejewelled relic that affirms the beauty of life in death, while the flies’ teeming surface of dark, bristling exoskeletons conjures a blank scape of blackness from bodies that were once living.
Salvation/Damnation also gestures to the passage of time in Hirst’s own life. In his installation A Thousand Years (1990), he employed live flies, a severed cow’s head and an Insect-O-Cutor to create an iconic spectacle of birth, death and decay, while In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) (1991) saw butterflies complete their lifecycle as they emerged from pupae fixed on painted canvases to flutter freely through the gallery space, nourished by flowers and sugarwater. ‘Well, when you get too deep into the darkness,’ Hirst commented, ‘you need to move it towards the light as well. The butterflies were a good way to get away from the flies: butterflies living instead of flies dying’ (D. Hirst, quoted in N. Serota, ‘Nicholas Serota interviews Damien Hirst, 14 July 2011,’ in Damien Hirst, exh. cat. Tate Modern, London 2012, p. 96). Here, the insects, fixed in their triangular frames, emblematise this darkness and light while also forming a memento mori of Hirst’s own artistic past.
The Salvation/Damnation dichotomy underlines Hirst’s fixation with dualities: he often creates paired compositions. ‘I thought if one said something, then two said it stronger. I always liked to admit and deny something at the same time’ (D. Hirst, quoted in N. Serota, ‘Nicholas Serota interviews Damien Hirst, 14 July 2011,’ in Damien Hirst, exh. cat. Tate Modern, London 2012, p. 91). The two works offer light and darkness, ugliness and beauty, death and life, and also imply the union of art and science. Like Hirst’s vitrines, which evoke both clinical theatres and austere Minimalist form in contrast to their almost spiritual content, Salvation/Damnation’s sharp triangular framing conjures the museological setting of insect display cabinets as much as the planar format of works by Donald Judd or Frank Stella.
At sixteen years old, Hirst would draw corpses preserved in formaldehyde at the Leeds morgue. ‘I wanted to know about death and I went to the morgue and I got these bodies and I felt sick and I thought I was going to die and it was all awful. And I went back and I went back and I drew them. And the point where death starts and life stops for me, in my mind, before I saw them, was there. And then when I’d seen them and I’d dealt with them for a while, it was over there again. It’s like, you know, I was holding them. And they just were dead bodies. Death was moved a bit further away’ (D. Hirst, quoted in G. Burn, ‘Interview 1: Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1992,’ in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 36). This movement of attraction and revulsion, distance and closeness in coming to terms with death would remain the fulcrum for Hirst’s art. Brought into elegiac conversation, the teeming contradictions in Salvation/Damnation beautifully express Hirst’s personal fascinations and universal concerns, standing for the enduring paradox that defines his work: ‘An obsession with death is a celebration of life’ (D. Hirst, quoted in G. Burn, ‘Interview 1: Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1992,’ in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 22).