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The skull, the butterfly, and the cabinet are Hirst’s most persistent universal features because more than any other motifs, they capture in different ways all the existential concepts that Damien Hirst has questioned for so many years, concepts that blur the boundaries between the angelic and the demonic, life and death, eternity and the ephemeral, beauty and ugliness. His works, captivating and intense as they are, challenge our stereotyped concepts and beliefs.
“You don’t like it, so you disguise it or you decorate it to make it look like something bearable – to such an extent that it becomes something else.”—Damien Hirst
With his work For the Love of God, Damien Hirst made the ultimate vanitas, a replica of the skull of a thirty-five-year-old man from the thirteenth century. Hirst covered the skull in platinum, set 8601 diamonds into it, and inserted a 52.4-carat diamond into the forehead. Created by the artist in 2007, this totem offered to God is a true icon and it broke all records by becoming the most expensive contemporary artwork in the world.
"Immortality is really desirable, I guess. In terms of images, anyway."
The ambivalence of the message is apparent – a diamond-encrusted skull maybe just a ridiculed, conceited attempt to triumph over death.
Despite the ambiguity of the concept, the artist examines our natural desire for immortality in a playful manner, as exemplified in The Hours Spin Skull. The sculpture acts as a reminder that our existence on earth is transitory. The skull, whose eye sockets are inlaid with watch dials, reminds us of the impermanence of life and it invites and encourages us to meditate on the existential.
“I’ve got an obsession with death … But I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid.”—Damien Hirst
In the Butterfly series, the artist, as a meticulous collector, depicts colourful dead Butterflies displayed against a contrasting black background. The artwork was inspired by a pursuit typical in Victorian times – butterfly collecting – a popular educational hobby for gentlemen and clergy.
"Everyone’s frightened of glass, everyone’s frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies."—Damien Hirst
Again, adopting the mantle of a collector, the artist has created large collage gloss paintings featuring butterfly wings, which are part of the Psalm series. These, as with his other works, aim to capture the beauty and to grasp and fix the ephemeral. Yet, the works conceal the strict relationship between beauty and death.
In Paper Kite Butterfly on Oleander, Hirst features his signature motif – the butterfly – alive in its natural surroundings, hanging from a beautiful, strikingly coloured blossom. In this, he has created an uplifting and celestial image that inspires childlike wonder in the face of such a beauty of nature. At the same time, however, it provokes fundamental questions about the meaning of life, a life which is characterized by death, and the fragility of biological existence.
“I love butterflies because when they are dead they look alive."—Damien Hirst
There is no imminent promise of salvation, no escape offered in these works. Those black pills, as in Dark Black Heaven, are as threatening as they are strangely attractive, a dark fatal allure which we already know leads to one ultimate destiny.
Hirst’s work questions the equivocal role of medicine. It can either take life and save life or destroy and restore. These pills are not a memento mori like the skulls or the butterflies. They are a symbol of resignation and alienation from life, and a fatal attraction towards death.
"It’s like God should be, the way they sell you the pills, the forms, the utopia, the hope, the cure. We’ve come a long way since quack doctors."—Damien Hirst
The pharmaceutical cabinets, as in Hirst’s work Utopia, question people´s complete reliance on medications and their power to heal, which fulfill the natural desire for immortality. However, the question is: Can drugs cure this problem, or can art?
On the other hand, Gold tears, which is part of the Utopia series, depicts rows of shiny diamonds on shelves covered with golden foil in front of a golden-beige background. The image is an intense vision of a golden cabinet filled with diamonds, a vision often associated with glorious eternity. But as always in Hirst’s art, the ambiguity is obvious – this cabinet points to the fact that behind all the shiny glittery surfaces there might be nothing, no meaning, and no soul. And hence the desire for eternity is less a promise than a condemnation.
"I can’t understand why most people believe in medicine and don’t believe in art, without questioning either."—Damien Hirst