PRINT January 1992


A Thousand Years, 1990, is Damien Hirst’s sensational and ostentatious “machine” constructed to induce and defeat maggoty optimism. An 800-cubic-foot rectangular glass-and-steel vitrine, supplied with a quantity of hatching maggots, nutrient solutions, one skinned cow head, and an ultraviolet electronic fly-killer, comprises the clinical environment for a microdrama of survival that begs comparison with the experience of free-market-driven social life in Britain today. Newly hatched flies freely migrate from their nest inside a wooden cube in one compartment of the vitrine, whereupon they are able to pass through a small circular orifice in the glass partition into an adjacent compartment containing both the putrefying cow head and the fly-killer. As the insects cross the threshold they encounter a dilemma of fateful proportions: those that are somehow resistant to the ultraviolet wavelength’s siren song ultimately find nourishment and a nesting ground for future generations, albeit in the shadow of the engine of their destruction. In this and earlier works, such as his randomly colored dot paintings, Hirst encourages us to see “chance” as the determinant that divides flies that will flourish from flies that will fry.

Hirst likens the form of the hyperkinetic swarm to a living sculptural mass in the process of achieving a state of equilibrium. However, other, less formally congenial notions spring equally to mind: a closed system such as A Thousand Years might seem to mirror the brutal conceptual reductions regularly encountered in Parsonian sociological discourse. At least one critic has aligned Hirst’s work to the historical genre of the vanitas. Hirst’s ostentatious recapitulation of insect behavior might also seem to burlesque the scientific method, to be a subtle indictment of the ideology of science, with its grotesque logic of induction and its equally grotesque “controlled” animal experiments on the order of “What would happen if we smashed a primate’s skull in with a hammer?” Other readings transform A Thousand Years into a picture of our (misguided) belief in the power of logic and reason to frustrate the essential contingency of human life.

And yet these interpretations, while valid, are irrelevant to the central interpretive paradigm evoked by A Thousand Years, which is neither specifically political, social, nor moral, but, rather, esthetic in nature. As a satire on the cult of the vitrine initiated by Joseph Beuys, Hirst’s ambitious and dramatic use of organic matter and systems, punctuated by contingency, positions the artist as a potential interlocutor and debunker of the Beuysian claim for the totalizing impact of the authentically “organic” artwork. To experience something of the intentional “flavor” of a Hirstian Gesamtkunstwerk, imagine a “social sculpture” conceived of and realized by Brett Easton Ellis’ savagely empiricist serial killer Patrick Bateman. The allegory of a social world of such resolute self-determination and cruelty, one that aspires to reach Sadean heights, resounds as a metalanguage throughout Hirst’s body of work. The dysfunctional burlesque that is A Thousand Years projects a powerful figure of the social deformity and vanity associated with the will to power; ultimately, it is the Faustian vanity of the Beuysian trope of the artist and his or her socially useful works that is being targeted.

I believe Hirst’s persona of the esthete is a shadow of Romanticism, an indication of his belief that it is the most effective role to assume in the struggle against social art. Esthetics, as Terry Eagleton points out, is born of the discourse of the body, and it pits a world of perception and sensation against the domination of conceptual and social thought.

A recent installation, In and Out of Love, 1991, revealed this by placing the spectator in the “vitrine” for the first time. The most ambitious of Hirst’s biological systems to date, this drama concerned the beautiful, sensual, fleeting life cycle of the Malaysian butterfly. Lovingly cared for in a former retail space transformed into a subtropical environment, pupae freely metamorphosed into butterflies, and were thereafter attended to by numerous assistants who kept them moist with plant misters and nourished them with an unlimited supply of sugared water. The results were absolutely hypnotic: butterflies on white canvases, butterflies on white walls, butterflies underfoot. That was the “falling in love” part; “falling out of love” was, as you may imagine, a good deal less jolly. In the basement of this “lepidopterium” was an installation that negatively, perversely, mirrored the one above: scores of butterflies alighting on wet canvases were entombed in a sea of monochrome gloss paint, becoming delicate and brilliant grace notes to a field of pure color. Ashtrays filled to the brim with butts were vile doppelgängers to the nourishing bowls of sugar water.

The esthete’s progress is not an idle voyage, but one that must always be taken to the extreme, otherwise rationality will never release its grip on sensual life. In A Thousand Years, we observed the flies; in In and Out of Love, we became part of the drama scripted in A Thousand Years but performed now on an appropriate stage. Hirst’s art tends to realize itself through just such a series of progressively aggrandized environments; all of them manipulate, dissect, and recombine the idea of social being. The epitome of this ideology can only be an act of violence and irrationality, before which all rhetorical demonstrations of the so-called fragmentation of the body must pale. Hirst has already conceived of such a work: the precise microsurgical removal of the artist’s hand, its momentary display on a plinth, and its subsequent, hopefully successful, reattachment to his body.

Michael Corris is a writer who lives in Oxford, England.