"We've got an inbuilt desire to avoid death in a physical way, but how many people do you see wandering around who are dead, who have a big problem with death? I'm dead? End of story."
(D. Hirst cited in Damien Hirst, London, 1997, p. 29)
At the helm of the Young British Artists movement, Damien Hirst has risen to prominence through his notorious fascination with the inevitability of death, the fragility of life and the human desire for immortality. Famously encasing a dead shark in formaldehyde, suspending sliced cows, sheep, pigs and decapitated bulls' heads in the same solution, placing dead butterflies onto oil paintings and constructing medicine cabinets filled with colorful life-extending pills, Hirst has approached death throughout his macabre oeuvre. He is a Romantic artist dealing with the grandest themes of life and death through the grittiest details. Away from the Flock, Divided is one of only a handful of split animal formaldenhyde works done by the artist in the mid-1990s when these works shocked and fascinated the art world and the culture at large.
Hirst's obsession has led to the creation of contemporary vanitas objects. Dutch still-life paintings from the seventeenth-century are replete with symbolic reminders of the transience of life. In these works, skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit and short-lived insects commingle with luxury and abundance to instill a sense of mortality in its beholders and warn against life's momentary pleasures. Hirst transforms the tradition of memento mori, no longer distancing death through the medium of painting, but overtly exposing it through its direct physical presence. Hirst states, "I am interested in realism. I want art to be life but it can never be" (D. Hirst cited in Damien Hirst, exh. cat., Naples, 2004, p. 131).
The human desire to preserve life and the impossibility of achieving this dream is perversely reflected through the dead sheep pickled in formaldehyde. No matter how physically intact and protected from decomposition, the sheep is ultimately dead. Frozen in a lively gambol and beautiful woolly coat, the sheep appears to cheat death with its frisky youth, but is paradoxically lifeless and frozen.
In Away from the Flock, Divided Hirst draws on the contrast between the mortality of the living thing and the immortality of the work of art. The human desire to outlive death is evinced in Hirst's desire to leave a legacy of art. In the Western tradition, art assumes a timeless quality and is preserved for posterity. Hirst mockingly invokes the institutional (museum) framework that has arisen for the preservation of art via the glass vitrine that encases the "art object". Hirst believes that art is a self-created monument, a vain and selfish part of an artist to remain in the world long after death.
Hirst deepens his dialogue with art by using the vocabulary of vetted art historical sources, including the Minimalist inspired, hard-edged, smooth, planar, industrial glass cases that house the two halves of the sheep. The dead sheep itself channels Duchamp's idea for the ready-made, extending it to organic form. Hirst appears to play with different stylistic tropes as well: for instance, the innards of the sheep appear as abstract biomorphic forms and curved arabesques; they play off the "realism" of the exterior of the sheep. Suspended in the blue-tinged formaldenhyde, the grisly "sculpture" is unexpectedly beautiful and inhabits many artistic ideas.
While Christian beliefs fueled the original ideas behind memento mori, Hirst no longer intends for his dead subjects to invoke fear and guilt, but rather the inevitable mortality of existence. However, the dead sheep has a particular biblical resonance; a lamb was often used as a metaphor for Christ's innocence and unsullied character, and Christ often referred to his followers as his flock. The dead sheep is evocative of a martyred Christ but also of a sheep that has gone astray and come to its demise. The title, Away from the Flock, Divided, suggests the latter and does indeed read like a Christian cautionary tale. Alternatively, it may suggest that no matter what promises of salvation await in the afterlife, faith alone is powerless in prolonging corporeal existence.