Archive: Damien Hirst, Ladies and Gentlemen

Last week, I teased you with a rather gruesome picture, and promised to write a post about it soon. So here it is (I’ll get to that particular picture eventually.)

For the last few months, the Qatar Museum Authority set up a Damien Hirst exhibit right next to the Museum of Islamic Art. It was free and open to people of all ages, which was interesting given the morbid contents of Hirst’s work. The goal was to start a conversation about art. There were stations for people to write about their thoughts after they went through the exhibit, and apparently, the QMA also collected video reactions from people around the city.

The exhibit started before you even entered the museum. Its facade was representative of the work inside. The building was white and rectangular (an unusually ordinary shape for this city of architectural creativity) with colored dots all over it.

The dots are important because they’re arguably Hirst’s most famous work. There was a whole room dedicated to “dots paintings,” and more were sprinkled throughout the museum. The idea is that the dots are all the exact same size and spaced the exact same distance from each other. And that distance is also the diameter of each of the dots. It’s a very mechanical-looking piece, as if it were just created by a robot, but Hirst paints each dot individually, which means they have all unique brushstrokes (not that you can really see them). According to the museum pamphlet, Hirst’s point was to make it look like it was made “by a person trying to paint like a machine,” with the ultimate goal of “pinning down the joy of color.” And “the formulaic approach…replicates pharmaceutical companies’ over-simplified scientific approach to life.”

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This railing on the pharmaceutical industry was a motif throughout the museum. One piece was just a large glass cabinet with medicine bottles inside. There was another large glass cabinet with hundreds of pills lined neatly end-to-end on each shelf. These cabinets are supposed to represent the human body, which we pump with vitamins and supplements and all sorts of other medicines. Hirst argues that half the time, we don’t even know what pills we’re consuming, but we take them because we believe in science and we believe in doctors and just do what they tell us to do. But he believes these pills just create a false sense of security and give the idea that we can cheat death. The medicine cabinet pieces, first inspired by the very full medicine cabinet of his late grandmother, are supposed to challenge that belief.
There were also a lot of preserved animals in this exhibit, also meant to force us to “stare death in the face.” There were sharks preserved in formaldehyde with their mouths wide open.
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A pregnant cow and calf were both cut in half, preserved in glass boxes, and positioned so that you could walk between the two halves of their bodies and see their innards. There was a decapitated cow with it’s head on a table and it’s body on the floor inside yet another glass box. I didn’t take any pictures of these – not because they were too gruesome, but because there was so popular that I couldn’t get a proper photo with all the people in the way.
This was another intriguing piece:
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It’s a man who has skinned himself, from head to toe. He’s holding the knife in the air in his right hand, and that’s his skin hanging over his arm like a shawl. It’s a disgusting concept, but the statue itself is so majestic and beautiful. I can’t remember if there was a point to it other than that juxtaposition, but nonetheless, it’s interesting.
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The stained glass behind him, which was also all around the room, was similar in that it’s gorgeous, but made entirely from butterfly wings. And since you kill a butterfly when you pluck its wings, they’re, in a sense, made from death.
There were a lot more morbid pieces in the museum, most of which I read about and took in, but didn’t take pictures of.  But there is still the matter of the rotting cow head.
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The second I walked into this room, I could smell a stench in the air – and I’ve got an awful sense of smell. There were two glass boxes placed adjacent to one another. One had a rotting cow head, and the other had just a small white box in it with a hole in it. I’m not sure what was in the white box… maybe another head. Both glass cages had flies buzzing all around them. They were put in there as larvae, but they fed on this cow and a small dish of nectar in the corner, grew up, reproduced, died, and were succeeded by their fly babies. I suppose this was also supposed to go along with the motif of facing death and nature in its most carnal state. Mostly, it was just gross and disturbing. But fascinating at the same time. Also, notice the dots in the background.
So it seems I’ve come full circle (pun unintended). And there you have it, Damien Hirst’s “Relics.”
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As my friends and I were walking out, we tried to decide if we’d enjoyed the exhibit or not. I’m still not sure. But the gallery did make me think. Mostly about whether art is supposed to inherently make the viewer feel something, and if the artists’ intended meaning is relevant. For example, those dots meant nothing to me. But knowing that Hirst meant for them to look mechanical, and almost boring, changes my perspective. And I would never have considered a medicine cabinet artwork, but I can see his point after reading about it. I’ve always felt that a piece of art is good if it strikes you on its own – if it can speak for itself. But that’s not entirely fair. Poets use words to explain their art, as do musicians. So why should physical art be different? Food for thought. Which is good, because I won’t be consuming any real food for a while after staring at that bloody head.
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