Damien Hirst

White Cube | Hoxton Square

In one form or another the subject of Damien Hirst has generated a vast amount of copy; the collected press cuttings alone run to several volumes. The sources are diverse—from the more-or-less specialist art press to the color supplements of the Sunday papers—but the writing has one prominent unifying feature: it is almost universally anecdotal. It is the artist, or rather his exotic creative persona, that is the subject of the commentaries, rarely the works themselves. Such commentaries as have paid attention to Hirst’s work as work are content, as often as not, to let their imaginations be driven by the press release or its equivalent. And for the most part this has meant looking at and talking about death.

The centerpiece of his most recent show was an impressively engineered, srainless-steel-and-glass cabinet filled with surgical equipment laid out in careful rows. A kind of top-of-the-range model of his signature “cabinet” sculptures, Still, 1994, like many of Hirst’s other works owes a great deal to Minimalism—to its industrial look and irs geometric forms. Only Hirst stuffs Minimalist “form” with human or at least corporeal “content,” which often comes in the shape of that other brand of 20th-century, three-dimensional work—the found object. Hirst has at rimes found ways of combining these divergent sculptural genres in highly economical and compelling ways. His earliest “medicine cabinets,” for example, were direct and striking; it was as if the cool face of Minimalism could only be sustained by massive doses of prescription drugs.

The characteristic effects of Hirst’s work have, however, almost nothing to do with the medium of sculpture, as most of his work is strongly pictorial. Its currency is that of the framed image. The cabinet or the freestanding iron-and-glass structure function as framing devices for a variety of still lifes, interiors, or animal pictures, but the very naturalism of Hirst’s pictures makes them an equally poor fit with the tradition of reflexive modern painting. More than anything, Hirst’s object-pictures resemble a form of photography. Still has, in one sense at least, a photo-related title, and recalls a scene from David Cronenberg’s film Dead Ringers, 1988, in which an unstable gynecologist peers into a gallery window and sees a set of surgical instruments he has designed for treating “mutant women” arranged as if in a museum. Though Hirst’s work rarely makes reference to actual scenes in films, there is something cinematic about ir. His freestanding steel-and-glass cages, empty of any figures, but filled with evidence of some recent human presence, beg to be organized into a narrative. They are often melodramatic, theatrical in Michael Fried’s sense of the term but to a degree beyond anything Fried could have imagined.

A kind of photographic object-picture has been just about the most prominent form of art in recent years. Its most usual form is either the mannequin, a one-toone scale, highly naturalisitc image of the body or the body cast, an inherently naturalistic indexical trace. Though, unlike Jeff Koons or Robert Gober or Kiki Smith or several London-based artists of his generation, Hirst uses neither the mannequin nor the cast form, how much difference does it make that he uses actual bodies, or bits of them, rather than representations? In terms of the planning and execution of the works, it obviously matters quite a lot, but in terms of their effects, perhaps it matters less. When Hirst’s 1000 Years, 1991, was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, the rotting cow’s head, a component of the narrative cycle, had been replaced by a model of a skull. It may have been a lesser work as a result, but no one seemed to notice, or at least no one mentioned it if they did. Suspended in fluid and framed by their containers, Hirst’s objects read as images.

There is another sense in which the photograph organizes the experience of Hirst’s work, as it does everyone else’s. It is simply that for the most part they are experienced as photographs, as reproductions. They don’t just survive the process of distribution through reproduction, they are flattered by it.

David Batchelor