New Damien Hirst Exhibit ‘Natural History’ Revisits Those Sharks and Calves

Above image: Damien Hirst, Cain and Abel, 1994, Glass, painted steel, silicone, acrylic, plastic cable ties, calves, and formaldehyde solution, Diptych, each part: 40.9 x 66.7 x 24.6 in, 104 x 169.5 x 62.5 cm
Edition of 1 with 1 artist’s proof, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022
Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Courtesy Gagosian

In the 2003 documentary Live Forever, Damien Hirst recalls the pearl-clutching uproar over his landmark 1991 sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – which was a real 14-foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde – by observing that rather than intending it as a provocation, “There was really something sort of sad and quiet and tragic about it. People think the art is so sensational, when really it’s the stuff in the newspapers that is so much more sensational.” He was right, obviously.

The gasping hysteria has waned over the years, surely – but the act of viewing the work up close has lost none of its power and poignance. And rightly acknowledging that, Gagosian will exhibit a collection of his most notable formaldehyde sculptures at their Britannia Street London gallery, marking the first time ever that the works will be gathered for a dedicated show.

Damien Hirst, Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, 1993
Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark, and formaldehyde solution
Triptych, each part: 78.1 x 42.5 x 30.5 in, 198.3 x 107.9 x 77.5 cm, incl. plinth, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022, Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Courtesy Gagosian

The exhibition, opening March 10, is properly titled Natural History. And though Hirst has carried it out a little less deliberately than, say, Tauba Auerbach, that palpable sense of provoking art and science into a new sort of conversation can be felt in each and every one of these works. Though in titling a 1994 calf sculpt Cain and Abel, and then in 2006 branding a decapitated cow as The Beheading of John the Baptist, he may very well have been using religious references to taunt and tantalize, even if in a cheeky, sardonic way.

There is an ever deepening irony in Hirst’s use of sharks as subjects, as over the last thirty years man has unquestionably become a much greater threat to any and all seagoing creatures than they might ever be to us – despite what the difference in one-on-one lethality might suggest – as we continue to escalate the destruction of our oceans. Still, and especially up close, there’s no denying the fear that those teeth are capable of inducing.

“I wanted a shark that’s big enough to eat you,” he explains, “and in a large enough amount of liquid so that you could imagine you were in there with it.”

Damien Hirst, Analgesics, 1993, Glass, silicone, acrylic, sheep’s heads, and formaldehyde solution,
Diptych, each part: 18 x 27 x 18 in, 45.7 x 68.6 x 45.7 cm

But his rhythmically titled Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, 1993 is in no shape to make a meal of a human victim, split into three as he/she is – but looking no less threatening because of it. Yet there is a serene melancholy about the detached sheep’s heads of Analgesics and the fully preserved sheep of I AM (therefore?…). Hirst, of course, has always been fascinated by mythology, be it his starkly realistic oil paintings of fame gathered for his recent Myths, Legends and Monsters exhibit, or his 2017 Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which found him conjuring his own imagined and fantastical myths…or most publicly his well-documented and epically decadent dalliances with the Britpop ruling classes of mid-’90s “Cool Britannia.” (Again from Live Forever: “I used to enjoy going out, being in a suit one minute, and on your knees the next.”)

The timing of this exhibition surely couldn’t be more meaningful, considering we’re just crawling out from under a global pandemic which took the lives of more than six million people – and of which London for a time was one of the fatal epicenters. Natural History as it is presented is to be sure a thoughtful, visceral meditation on death and mortality. And considering Hirst’s deserved position as one of the most coveted and collected living artists, revisiting the works that laid the foundation for his more than thirty-year artistic manifesto seems only appropriate, right as all existence teeters on possible extinction.

Just don’t tap on the glass, please.

Above from top:

Damien Hirst, I AM, 1995, Glass, painted steel, silicone, acrylic, plastic cable ties, stainless steel, sheep and formaldehyde solution, 43.5 x 64.1 x 25.4 in, 110.5 x 162.7 x 64.5 cm, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022
Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst, The Beheading of John the Baptist, 2006, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, ceramic floor tiles, stainless steel, resin butcher’s block, knives, machete, chain mail glove, cow, and formaldehyde solution, 90.7 x 131.5 x 85.4 in, 230.5 x 334 x 216.8 cm, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022, Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst, Death Denied, 2008, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, monofilament, tiger shark, and formaldehyde solution, 84.8 x 202.4 x 74.2 in, 215.4 x 514.2 x 188.4 cm, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022, Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Courtesy Gagosian

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