'I remember I was thinking that there were four important things in life: religion, love, art and science. At their best, they're all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness. None of them really work that well, but they help. Of them all, science seems to be the one right now. Like religion, it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end' (The artist quoted in conversation with Sean O'Hagan, New Religion Damien Hirst, exh. cat., London, 2006, p. 5).
Executed in 1994, a year before Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize, Collective Memory (Loss) is an early work by Hirst that presents the viewer with twenty-four plastic formaldehyde receptacles, locked within two steel cages. Like Hirst's iconic cabinets and vitrines, the geometric frame formed by the clean, unbroken lines of steel provides a sense of clinical order in which to scientifically examine the specimen within. For Hirst, formaldehyde performs a metaphorical role, 'employed as much to communicate an idea as to preserve, acts aesthetically to maintain an illusion of life in death', the virulent liquid encompassing the power to both preserve and harm (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Reduced edition, London 2005, p. 9). As the artist revealed with respect to Away from the Flock, now part of Tate Collection National Galleries of Scotland collection, the formaldehyde represents 'that 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, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Reduced edition, London 2005, p. 296). Hirst's clinical eye and conceptual approach are combined to great effect in Collective Memory (Loss), locked within this frame, the cage functions as a lens in which to observe this relationship. Dramatically subverting the cool austerity of the smooth, planar borders, the ominous contents underscores the fragility of existence within its confines.