PRINT December 2006

Thomas Crow

FOR A EUROPEAN ARTIST to arrive in Mexico City trailing paraphernalia of suffering and death might seem the height of folly. From the tzompantli, or skull racks, of the Aztecs to the famous calavera (skull) caricatures of José Guadalupe Posada (1851–1913), to the festive altars that mark the Day of the Dead in nearly every Mexican city and town, there would seem to be a national patent on the imagery of death, one that an outsider should infringe only with the greatest caution. If that artist is Damien Hirst, notoriously the author of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, how does he create common ground with a society that has historically found mortality to be eminently conceivable and has erected whole industries around it?

Undeterred, Hirst showed a major ensemble of new work in Mexico City at the Galería Hilario Galguera, which was specially relaunched in order to provide the venue. (The show, titled “Mors Dei: Ad Meliorem Comprehensionem Vitae sine Dei in Nave Stultorum” [The Death of God: Toward a Better Understanding of Life Without God Aboard the Ship of Fools], opened on February 23, 2006, and remained on view for six months.) Though insistent in its continuity with the motifs and themes on which his previous reputation had been made, this latest statement—some twenty-nine paintings and sculptures—drew new strength from an impeccably conceived and crafted installation, lending Hirst’s thinking as an artist a coherence and sustained intensity that I have not seen anywhere before.

The shark is back, under the title Ira Dei (The Wrath of God), 2005, and much improved in presentation. The overinflated Koonsian tank of the old one, with its obtrusive metal frame, has given way to a smaller and sleeker model. This pristine specimen rests suspended in a transparent enclosure of seamless molded acrylic, which rests in turn atop an identically proportioned white base that contains (and hides) the bracing that bears the formidable weight of its formaldehyde ambient.

Though still a tiger shark, this four-foot juvenile will not fill anyone with dread, and the more generous space that surrounds its arrested swim makes the fish seem even smaller. In the Galguera gallery installation, it seemed—despite the portentous title—to function more as a guide, a familiar apparition pointing the way to visitors, not so much between pieces as among stations along a route that seemed part ghoulish fun fair and part ambulatory of a lost pilgrimage church, though reducible to neither.

Hirst’s signature objects have never been exactly comprehensible to American eyes. The “split” sheep for example, lambs separated from their mothers, lack resonance in a country without readily visible flocks on green hillsides. The poetic parable of the shepherd ought to make more sense in a society currently saturated with public piety, but biblical literacy nonetheless remains scarce and hardly salient to the fine-art audience.

The split sheep with their intact fleeces became, in Mexico, flayed monsters, their skeletons broken to grotesque patterns of praying penitents and crucified martyrs. The spin paintings, made in the gallery, with skulls protruding from their centers, red and black spatters trailing across the white walls, have likewise migrated from English seaside pier to cultic grotto, where Sacrum Cor Jesu (The Sacred Heart of Jesus), 2005, a bull’s heart pierced with hypodermic needles, scalpels, and a garland of barbed wire, occupied the fluid-filled vitrine at its center.

Hirst’s traveling company includes not just his small army of assistants but these familiar characters, his animals of parable and fable, who have here acted out another set of dramas in this country of Baroque Catholicism. And the crowds that thronged the narrow streets around the gallery on the night of the opening would suggest that Hirst’s new act represented no impertinence. Novelist and screenwriter Guillermo Sheridan, writing in 2000, called the Day of the Dead “an invention of anthropologists . . . a shuddering emotion of Frida Kahlo. It promotes a narcissistic tourism that is based not on our convictions but on ‘our traditions.’” More than a few Mexicans may have been pleased to see the folkloric panoply of death put through such exquisitely staged travesty.

Not that anyone believes that the association of Mexico with morbid ritual and symbol is artificial: It is simply that the nature of that association remains open to continual revision and innovation. Claudio Lomnitz’s impressive 2005 study Death and the Idea of Mexico tracks that history from “the great dying” of the sixteenth century to the latest twist in the saga, the appearance of unsanctioned ritual around a beneficent figure of La Santísima Muerte (Most Holy Death), a cult still obscure in origin but linked in the present with the strongholds of narcotics traffickers.

From the outside, the effect of the exhibition transcended small questions of aesthetic decorum. The very fact that Hirst wanted and was able to mount this show where he did, moving the enormous economy that surrounds his production to a gallery out of easy view by art-world initiates (albeit in one of the world’s great cities), testifies to an individual power over events not seen in art since the death of Picasso. It may seem another kind of blasphemy to mention Picasso and Hirst in the same breath. But I came away from the show thinking about all the skulls that populate the former’s wartime still lifes and his Spaniard’s fascination—in both his life and his art—with the anthropomorphic martyrdom of animals in the corrida de toros. Have we truly finished with all that?

Thomas Crow is director of The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and a contributing editor of Artforum.