The Existentialism of Damien Hirst
Whilst we may all be familiar with Descartes’ notion that ‘I think, therefore I am’, Kierkegaard instead opted for an alternative mantra - ‘I exist, therefore I think’. This formed the origins of existentialism in both philosophical and psychological discourse, which developed throughout the 20th century. The idea of existentialism focuses on the entirety of an individual, that we are more than simply the sum of our component parts, and that people have fundamental meaning and morals in their lives, or raison de vivre. Art often attempts to reflect society and the artist themselves, and Damien Hirst is no exception to this. With a focus on existence, death is of course called into question, and in his recent retrospective at his own establishment, Newport Street Gallery, Hirst’s artwork engages with a deeply existential view of the world. Combining a myriad of art forms, from installations to paintings, Hirst’s artwork delves into the complexities of hard-hitting topics like religion, science, and beauty, with a playful and concise approach.
In one of his most famous (or infamous) pieces, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde in a triptych-style tank, Hirst speaks of water as death. The choice to use formaldehyde to create a skewed effect of water, but without its erasing properties, signifies a fascination with preservation of life. Whilst water may indeed wash away the visual or surface aspects, Hirst’s use of formaldehyde silences, rather than erases. The preservation is real, we can see with our own eyes the innards of a spliced shark in seemingly perfect order. His artwork seems transparent, its simplicity suggesting at first that Hirst fits some kind of educator, conservationist role, but the attachment of silence to his work, the formaldehyde pieces, reveals an inner darkness - that death is merely another stage or part of an individual’s total existence, it cannot be erased.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
This figurative silence that is created with the formaldehyde-soaked animal fragments is reiterated through not just visual, but aural noise - something that I’ll come back to later. Various noises penetrate the gallery space, and at first it isn’t clear from where they stem. The culprit is eventually revealed to be an inconspicuous hairdryer blowing a ping pong ball from below, a tantalising fight between gravity and generated air. In this piece, with the effortlessly profound title What Goes Up Must Come Down, Hirst explores the discord between natural and man-made energy, a fragile and temperamental tug of war. For such a small exhibit, blending in with the soft white walls, it creates such a resounding noise, demanding attention, whilst the formaldehyde animals lay silent, dormant.
What Goes Up Must Come Down (1994)
Hirst’s exhibition addresses action and inaction, silence and noise, in both a visual and aural sense. The multimedia artist uses a range of forms perhaps as an ode to the multiplicity of the individual. The noises in the gallery are pervasive, and as you traipse up a winding staircase, the dizzying sensation is continued with a large rotating wheel splashed with paint. A dazzling array of colour, layered and slathered with what must be an astonishing volume of paint, the piece Beautiful, cheap, sh***y, too easy, anyone can do one big motor-driven, roto-heaven, corrupt, trashy, bad art, sh**e, motivating, captivating, over the sofa, celebrating painting is entrancing. Hirst’s words displayed alongside, that ‘the movement sort of implies life: the moment they stop, they start to rot and stink’, continues a frequently addressed fear or fascination with death, and more importantly decay. The wheel gives the effect of the piece still being in production, as we can imagine the splashes only get their quality through the movement of the canvas. Note that it is the production, not the creation. Hirst’s control and restriction of sound, agency, colour, and space feels organised, generated, planned, and clinical in many ways. His exhibits don’t embody a sense of organic conception, rising from a tumultuous life or experience per se, but instead speak to, and have become, artistic weapons of mass production.
Beautiful, cheap, sh***y, too easy, anyone can do one big motor-driven, roto-heaven, corrupt, trashy, bad art, sh**e, motivating, captivating, over the sofa, celebrating painting (1996)
Hirst’s exploration of his own existentialism can be seen in his pinpoint self-awareness. The title of the wheel of colour piece is a testament to his rambling and in-depth approach to his art, and therefore by extension his own introspection. Hirst is an artist playing with forms, traditions, and more importantly, expectations. Kirkegaard’s approach to life and existentialism as requiring a person to find meaning within their life, to have definition and direction, can be seen in Hirst’s artwork. Hirst has found meaning - to create art, within a fractured and often unsure approach to the meaning of life and death in general. His existence allows him to create art, and his creation of art allows him to contemplate the meaning of his existence. Art therefore provides once more a psychological journey for both creator and viewer. This exhibition is ultimately a retrospective of an introspective artist, contemplating the preservation of life, his own legacy, and the inescapability of death.
Archie, Lee C. (2006) "Søren Kierkegaard, 'God's Existence Cannot Be Proved'." In Philosophy of Religion. Lander Philosophy.