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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Art that will 'Freeze' you in your tracks

Viewing Damien Hirst's exhibition is a physically altering experience. It's hard to put a finger on it, but it may have something to do with the thousands of fly carcasses that are glued onto a square frame on the wall and exude an odor which suffuses its way through the Foster Gallery. If visitors can overcome the temptation to purge these feelings that Hirst's work inspires, the unfortunate first impression may just morph into something that is closer to infatuation.

The MFA exhibit is made up of a collection of Hirst's past works. Almost directly in front of the entrance is a piece entitled "Away from the Flock," a lamb in a glass container filled with formaldehyde. Though it seems counterintuitive when looking at his more morbid works, Hirst was raised in a religiously observant household, and his concern for the sacred is a prevalent theme in his work. He has determined that his belief in art is similar to a belief in God and that the two are therefore linked.

In "Flock," Hirst succeeds quite literally in preserving the symbol of the sacrificed Christ, yet he also makes a spectacle of it. It's hard to figure out whether to pray or laugh while viewing this piece and the materials used heading on the museum plate, which reads, "Steel, glass, formaldehyde solution, and lamb."

Animals, alive and dead, make up much of the material of Hirst's work. Butterflies are one of his many fascinations. In a quotation that accompanies one piece, "The Unbearable Likeness of Being," Hirst declares, "You need to find universal triggers. Everyone's frightened of glass, everyone's frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies."

To show us exactly how much we love butterflies, Hirst has ripped the wings off of their dead bodies and created an aesthetically gratifying pattern with them on a light green backdrop. What were once beautiful living creatures, in this new form, are suggestive of both life and death. The overall impression is that of a stained glass window in a church, which shares the idea of preservation that the lone lamb evokes, but strongly portrays a sense of religious eternity.

"The Collector" consists of an animatronic man inside a greenhouse made of glass, who is intently examining a dead butterfly, while live ones flutter all around him. He is a virtuoso so focused on his study that he is unaware of anything around him, and this gives the piece a Frankenstein-like quality. Perhaps to accentuate this eerie mad scientist aspect, there are broken glass jars with pigs' blood spilling out in each corner of the greenhouse in the piece, as well as a small plastic anatomy model with its guts spilling out onto the floor in front of the concentrating collector. Hirst's quote links the piece to the prettiness of girls and the preservation of beauty.

Hirst demonstrates another tie between religion and art in "Is Nothing Sacred" (1997), a medicine cabinet with a very neatly displayed array of old medicine boxes and bottles. His attention to color and arrangement is apparent in this piece, as it is arranged in such a way that it would be sacrilege to remove anything from it: a very tempting sacrilege. This work was inspired by his mother's skepticism towards his art. She displayed a similar lack of understanding of both his art and of medicine, yet had complete trust in pharmaceuticals. He wanted to create something that demonstrated the relationship between these two seemingly opposite institutions.

In his work, Hirst embraces opposing forces: life and death, beauty and disgust, heaven and hell; and even his critics seem to maintain inner dualities when considering his work. Media coverage has been a double edged sword for him, and has been concerned as much with his character as with his artwork.

The often humorous titles of his work bring about the question: is Damien Hirst an innovative and talented artist or a hip young Brit with a sick sense of humor? After all, this is the guy whose band, Fat Les, sang the football-themed hit "Vindaloo."

In 1988, when Hirst was a graduate student at Goldsmith's College in London, he organized an exhibition, "Freeze", which displayed his work and the work of 16 other students and helped to fuel the Young British Artist's movement. After the exposure he gained from "Freeze," Hirst went on to create his seminal piece, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"(1991), a tiger shark suspended in a tank filled with formaldehyde.

In 1995, Hirst won the Turner Prize for art, and despite his mixed critiques, he has greatly influenced the contemporary art world.

His work is indisputably dependent on their shock value, but it is up to the viewer to see what emotions are invoked after the initial shock of it. The artist himself, now approaching age 40, has moved away from making the sculptures that are on display at the MFA, and is about to open his first painting exhibition in New York on March 11.