Flesh and Blood: A Giant Secular Martyr, the Apostles as Cows' Heads in Formaldehyde and Surgical Cabinets Named after Saints ... despite the Explicit Religious Iconography, Damien Hirst's Exhibition More Closely Resembles an Abattoir Than a Temple

By Cork, Richard | New Statesman (1996), September 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Flesh and Blood: A Giant Secular Martyr, the Apostles as Cows' Heads in Formaldehyde and Surgical Cabinets Named after Saints ... despite the Explicit Religious Iconography, Damien Hirst's Exhibition More Closely Resembles an Abattoir Than a Temple


Cork, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


Clutching a button-eyed teddy bear in one hand and a pale collection box in the other, the disabled girl gazes over Houston Square's park like a forlorn colossus. Based on a charity donation figure made half a century ago, she has been expanded to a monumental size and cast in bronze. But Damien Hirst, who uses this new statue as an open-air proclamation of his solo show at the nearby White Cube gallery, has not simply blown up his source material to titanic dimensions. Walking round this six-ton behemoth, we discover that plaintiveness gives way to a shocking, savage mood. For the locked door, once slammed shut firmly in the back of the girl's blue dress, is now skewered open. Whoever committed this violation has plundered the tomb-like darkness within, taking all the donated money away. A scratched crowbar lies on the circular black plinth below, flung down like a final insult. And a few stray, low-value coins, bearing dates between 1958 and 1966, have been left behind as well. These modest old pennies and three-penny bits, all flaunting profile images of a young and optimistic Queen, suggest that some of the donors could ill-afford to give their petty cash away.

Once we realise that this supremely cynical robbery has occurred, our reaction to the front of Hirst's sculpture changes. With her carefully drawn eyebrows and upturned nose, the girl at first seemed capable of triumphing over her disability. After all, she carries a box inscribed with the words "Please Give Generously", and few could resist her wistful appeal. But the theft turns this waif into an embodiment of futility. There was no point in exposing her useless right leg, rigidly enclosed in its cruel splint. However much sympathy may have been elicited by the trapped limb, along with her bare anorexic arms and scuffed left knee, the crime has made a nonsense of all her fundraising ambitions.

It also prompts us to look at the sculpture's surroundings with disenchanted eyes. Although an official notice proudly announces that the Hoxton Square park was "refurbished" in 1995, the placard itself is now looking dingy. A grubby skip and two wheelie-bins stand in the vicinity, packed with litter. Despite escalating property values and new-found fashionableness, Hoxton Square exudes urban seediness. A security guard has been employed to protect Hirst's Charity during its five-week sojourn in this tree lined locale.

A decade ago, a memorable precedent for his new sculpture was set by Kerry Stewart, who made a fibreglass charity figure called The Boy From the Chemist Is Here to See You, He stood wanly behind a semi-opaque glass door, waiting for donations. But Hirst's 22-foot image is far more violent, reflecting an urge to explore the gruesomeness of martyrdom. Although this girl is a secular statue, she hovers on the edge of sainthood. And her immense size turns her, paradoxically, into a target more vulnerable than Stewart's far smaller work.

The notion of martyrdom is given a more explicit religious form in the rest of Hirst's exhibition. His main space at White Cube has been transformed into an arena where the 12 apostles are assembled, although no trace of their figures can be discerned. We are presented instead with a sequence of steel and glass cabinets ranged along the side walls. They recall, at first sight, the chilling pharmaceutical world Hirst explored in many of his earlier works. But clinical purity is here replaced by a relentless preoccupation with suffering and destruction. Even if plenty of the vessels and tubes resting on these shelves are still intact, they have become besmirched by blood.

This is far and away the most expressionist show that Hirst has ever mounted. The bell jars, crucibles and flasks are now accompanied by surgical scissors, knives and crumpled tissues soaked in gore. Peering in at these sacrificial objects is alarmingly akin to examining the aftermath of illicit medical operations.

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