An Essay by John David Ebert
The Artist as Metaphysician
The thing about Damien Hirst is that he is not, strictly speaking, an artist; he is, rather, a metaphysician. The vast majority of his work, as is well known, is delegated to others for their realization, since Hirst cannot paint, draw, sculpt, carve, shape or make anything. He simply visualizes the ideas, draws a quick sketch, and then gets busy on the phone. He is not, in short, a craftsman, for the artist as skilled craftsman is one who is concerned with the efficient and material causes of a work of art. Hirst deals only with the formal and final causes that visualize the works as singularities brought into being through the processes of Difference and Genesis.
It was the seventeenth century British philosopher Francis Bacon who separated out the formal and final causes of a thing as belonging to metaphysics, whereas the efficient and material causes were the domain exclusively of science, that is to say, of physics proper. The natural scientist was therefore a physician, properly speaking; the philosopher, in Bacon’s view, a metaphysician. Hence, Hirst is the artist as a metaphysician, one, that is, who deals only with the Platonic Ideas of the work and delegates the realization of those Ideas into specific material substrates by skilled (and largely anonymous) craftsmen. This enables him to work with a vast profusion of media, and to convey the illusion that he is master of them all. This is one of the reasons why he says that at the beginning of his career, he was torn between being an artist and being a curator of exhibitions. Hirst is a master of arrangements; hence, his early facility with collages.
Artists, of course, have always delegated tasks to assistants and pupils; this is nothing new. What is new with Hirst is the scale and degree of the delegation, since it is there from Day One. Warhol, in his factory, may have had other artists do projects for him, but Warhol began, and always remained, as a craftsman: as one who could, if sufficiently motivated, do things. This was never the case with Hirst.
And so, Hirst represents something new in art, the ontological crisis of the status of the artist as an artist. There has been a slippage between the artist and the material construction of his works that, with Hirst, is almost complete, a near total divorce of mind from matter. Of course, this has been the case with the architect since about the year 1800 or so when, with the rise of new kinds of architectural materials like iron and glass and steel-framed skeletons, the engineer came into being as a separate phenomenon from the architect, and upon whose skills the architect has had to rely ever since in order to realize the formal causes of his visions in specific material substrates. For the past two centuries, the architect, too, has been almost exclusively a metaphysician. And as a metaphysician, the architect can get into the deep ontology of a civilization in ways that are difficult for the average artist: indeed, the architect can define the entire ontology for a civilization, in just the way that ours has been defined by the architecture of Nowhere: shopping malls, airports, office parks and other forms of corporate architecture.
And so, Hirst as a metaphysician has likewise been privileged to a deep access to the ontology of our civilization. He is not an example of McLuhan’s dictum that the artist is a creator of a counter-environment to the prevailing technological environment of a civilization, in the way, say, that the Romantic poet was retrieving ancient agrarian myths to create a counter-world to the Industrial environment. Hirst as an artist-metaphysician, rather, is performing a sort of X-ray analysis for us of the prevailing global world order of our civilization, revealing, as it were, the transcendental (a priori) skeleton of that civilization.
Hirst, in other words, is the Immanuel Kant of globalization.
Let’s begin with something as banal and apparently trivial as the spot paintings, the first few examples of which in 1986 and 1988 were painted by Hirst himself. These are simply white canvases upon which Hirst or his many assistants paint rows and rows of multi-colored spots arranged into a grid. But in commenting on these paintings, Hirst has this to say: “Imagine a world of spots. Every time I do a painting a square is cut out. They regenerate. They’re all connected.”
When Hirst says “every time I do a painting, a square is cut out,” he might just as well be talking about every work of art he ever does, especially the vitrines, which are, after all, just squares and rectangles cut out of this grid and in which other entities or elements are substituted for the spots. The spots are actually semiotic place-holders, then, for which one can substitute absolutely any entity: rows of cigarette butts, say, or serialized fish all swimming in the same direction. It doesn’t matter so much what the particular entity is that is plugged into Hirst’s semiotic grid of place-holders, for what matters is the fact that anything plugged into this grid immediately takes on the ontological status of Seriality and Repetition. It is the repetition of the entity, as with Warhol’s Coke bottles or Campbell’s Soup cans, that is the point.
In plugging various entities into this grid, which acts as a kind of phase space underlying all of Hirst’s work as its transcendental schema, the entities themselves, in being reiterated to infinity, have changed their status. They are no longer singularities that belong to specific lifeworld contexts. In Heideggerian terms, they have become ontologically deworlded entities. They are pure Figures minus all Grounds.
In today’s global hypercapitalist world order, we are all ontologically deworlded entities, pure Figures minus Grounds, pure entities minus the conditions of our originating Worlds. And once the conditions of an originating World are subtracted from an entity, one can do certain things to that entity that could not have been done when the entity was embedded in the context of its lifeworld.
One can, for instance, serialize it. But one can also treat it as an entity unto itself, capable of infinite modulation. The entity can also be cloned. It can be hybridized, modified, cut open, rearranged, altered, spliced, diced and otherwise interfered with. Lacking dependency for its existence upon the conditions of its originating World – the breathability of an atmosphere, say, or the nutrients from the earth taken into the body to heal it from illness – the entity now becomes dependent instead upon management by large and impersonal scientific institutions, such as hospitals, genetics labs, pharmaceutical industries and the like, which have to provide the circumstances of its life conditions for it. Artificial conditions are provided for the entity, which has now become merely a prosthesis of a scientific establishment that regards it as capable of Infinite Operability and Modification.
And so, it is not just Hirst’s formaldehyde animals that have become the new objects of the Gaze of this global deworlding operation, but each and every one of us. We are all deworlded entities in the eyes of Big Science, capable of endless modification: the human body, in such a world order, is composed of a series of modules, each of which, and any of which, can be moved around, subtracted, replaced, substituted and altered, for whatever reason any of these institutions sees fit, whether they are hospitals, pharmaceutical laboratories or genetic engineering firms.
Hirst’s art, then, is an art for capturing the age of the ontologically deworlded entity.
Hirst’s first two medicine cabinets, entitled Sinner and Enemy, were actually built by himself in 1988. The first one, Sinner (shown above) is the prototype – and in many ways, serves as the overture to all the rest of his work – and features his grandmother’s medicines, arranged into rows on six shelves. Instead of serialized spots, we now have rows of medicine bottles plugged into the grid and contained in a rectangular box that will later evolve into his rectangular vitrines. In the left corner (uniquely amongst all his medicine cabinets) Hirst has placed a small anatomical model such as might be assembled by a child, as a signifier for the object of all these medicines: the human body, or rather, the pathologized human body. Each medicine in each bottle corresponds to one or another organ of the diseased human body which, in the global world order, has components which can be removed and switched out, just like the little plastic pieces of the anatomical body. Everything is modular in this transcendental schema: no piece has its own authenticity or singularity, and each can be simply traded out for another, or else its mechanized equivalent (such as a mechanical heart or a metal-jointed hip).
Hirst’s medicine cabinets are like one of those distant stars studied by astrophysicists who infer the existence of the invisible planets orbiting them by studying the gravitational wobbles of the stars: the cabinets, in other words, function as a sign that something is missing, for the very existence of these drugs implies an invisible order of sick human beings orbiting about them. Not only does their existence imply the corresponding reality of a society of the sick and the infirm as a norm, but they also imply that the illnesses managed by the producers of these drugs are seen in a certain way: that is to say, in a one to one correspondence between each symptom and each drug. The symptoms, like the diseased organs that can be swapped out, can be traded out for each other: each drug will eliminate each symptom, but will cause many more symptoms to appear that guarantee the existence of the other drugs to manage them. The symptoms themselves are infinitely operable and can be switched out like the components of an anatomical model.
But the drugs arranged in the rows on the shelves can also be regarded as elements in a set, as in the case of mathematical set theory, in which brackets are drawn around a finite (or perhaps infinite) number of elements that are then set off in order to be mathematized. This analogy becomes even more clear in the vitrines, to which Hirst, in 1990, then turned. (The grid of spots is still in operation; in the vitrines, the grid has simply become three-dimensionalized, and its elements reduced).
In his first great vitrine, A Thousand Years, (shown above) Hirst isolates just a few elements from the infinity of possible elements that form the continuum of the real world: in the first, smaller scale version, A Hundred Years, this consisted simply of two glass cubes connected together (like mathematical brackets) isolating the set of elements composed of an Insectocutor, flies, a smaller white box which hatched the larvae, and some dishes of sugar cubes. The flies are the entity taken from the physical world that now stand in for the spots (in an interview Hirst called them simply “black dots”), and it is the function of their life cycle, of their birth in the white cube and their death by the Insectocutor, that is now isolated in the brackets formed by the vitrine. The smaller virtine of A Hundred Years even becomes a subset of the larger vitrine A Thousand Years, since the latter contains all the elements of the former, with the addition of one more element: the severed cow’s head which the flies can feed upon or lay their eggs in.
The vitrine thus functions as a mathematical bracket, or a slice of the spot grid that has been three-dimensionalized, inside which entities, any entities, can be removed from the conditions of their lifeworld and studied, isolated and analyzed. It is like the artistic equivalent of a scientific experiment. The larger implication, of course, is that we are all flies bracketed and studied, isolated into the grid of the scientific world order that has subtracted us from the conditions of our locality in a specific place and a specific time.
In 1991, Hirst had a kind of creative explosion, in which vitrines now began routinely swimming forth from his imagination. The most famous of these is, of course, the formaldehyde shark, which Hirst entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. (shown above) Whereas with the flies, he had extracted an entity from its lifeworld in order to study the conditions of its life cycle while alive, now Hirst proceeds to extract an animal, a very dangerous one, from the conditions of its lifeworld in order to freeze and arrest it into a state of permanent suspension, as though one had simply pressed the “pause” button on one of these creatures just as it was about to take a bite out of someone. By capturing the animal and suspending its processes of decomposition with formaldehyde, Hirst is essentially demonstrating the ability of science to arrest the laws of nature as they would normally operate. It is, indeed, the physical impossibility of the death of the animal, since the formaldehyde suspends its natural decomposition process.
In ancient Egypt, the organs of the body were removed and placed into canopic jars with various kinds of salts and other chemicals to dry them out so that they would cease to decay. In mummifying the body, the Egyptians were trying to arrest the natural processes of decomposition for religious reasons, namely to extract the body from “nature” and to displace it into a “supernatural” order of eternality. By contrast, the animal that is captured and preserved in formaldehyde by science is chemically mummified, but not for religious reasons; it is, rather, to demonstrate the power of science over nature, of its ability to seize and capture all natural flows of any, and every, kind. Suspending the animal’s decay rate with chemicals is a way of placing it inside the phase space of the scientific anti-world, which removes all entities from the circumstances of their local environments, in which they are embedded in, and governed by, temporal metabolisms. It is the triumph of science over the organism, over Nature, and over environmental circumstances of all kinds. The animal, in other words, is an animal no longer: it is, rather, a thing, transcendental object x, whose properties can be studied and mapped objectively. It is not the animal painted by the Paleolithic artist on the walls of his cave, which is captured into a magical order of timeless Platonic essences, but the animal as scientific object, flayed, splayed and transformed into a timeless function in a bracketed set of equations. And whereas the Paleolithic Animal Form could, through proper use of the rites of regeneration, become the template from which endless physical copies could be made, so too, the scientifically deworlded animal can become the template from which, through the processes of cloning and genetic engineering, an endless procession of serialized forms can be made.
And indeed, Hirst proceeds to serialize his shark by miniaturizing it, scaling it down and multiplying it into a grid of small fish for his two vitrines entitled Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (shown above). These two vitrines, one oriented to the right and one to the left, are composed of six rows of fish all aligned like spots on one of his grids (or bottles in the medicine cabinets). They, too, are deworlded entities, cloned, replicated and plugged into a bivalent ontology of pure Platonic Left and pure Platonic Right. Like Kant’s problem of the identity of indiscernibles, in which the left hand cannot be mapped onto the right hand no matter which way you turn them, entities in a bivalent ontology must be oriented along symmetrical axes that govern, in a priori fashion, their manifestation in time and space.
Human and Animal
In the 1994 vitrines, Still, Naked and Doubt, which are composed of glass encased cabinets with glittering arrays of stainless steel surgical instruments, all laid out into rows, we are treated to a vision of the fate of the body in the scientific world order. These vitrines, of course, are an outgrowth of the medicine cabinets, but whereas those imagine the body as composed out of an infinite assemblage of chemical compounds (capable of endless deconstruction and reconstruction, like Lego blocks) the surgical vitrines present the body as a mechanical assemblage of moveable parts: if an organ is diseased, you simply cut open the body and remove it. If a limb is wrong, you hack it off. If a tumor is present, you cut it out. The body is a machine composed of parts which can be switched out at will. It is capable of infinite analysis and breakdown by the scientific gaze.
Likewise, with the apotheosis of his formaldehyde vitrines, Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything. Here, a cow and a bull have been sliced into a series of pieces, and each vitrine contains one slice, interfiled with the others. The animal here, too, is modular: it can be carved up and analyzed; pulled apart and catalogued, inventoried and assembled. In other words, in the global scientific world order, there is no ontological difference whatsoever between the human and the animal. Forget Heidegger’s insistence on the “abyss of difference” between them: in this world order, the human being is just as much composed of a modular array of parts, like moving units in a Japanese house, as an animal, and both are susceptible of modifying, packaging and assembling like parts in a factory. The human being, in this flattening world order which crushes all hierarchies down onto a single plane of horizontal homogeneity, is just a displaced animal. He, too, can be captured like the formaldehyde shark, and placed into aeternal phase space where he is transformed from an ontological singularity into a mathematical function.
Hence, with the other apotheosis of his formaldehyde animals, the series of 12 vitrines, each of which contains a sheep’s skull floating in formaldehyde and entitled XII Disciples, (one of which is shown above) each one given the name of one of the Apostles, it follows that, since there is no difference ontologically speaking in this global world order between humans and animals, the Apostles may just as well be represented as animals. This “scientific” civilization, in other words, has reversed thousands of years of careful religious evolution, in which the human was gradually extracted ontologically from his animal substrate. With the Sphinx of Giza, a human head sits on an animal body, but with the Greek centaur, half the body is a horse and the other half a human. By the time of the Apostles of Christ’s days, the animal-headed Egyptian gods were regarded as a religious atavism, a holdover from the days of the pagans, all of which imagery was anathematized in the fourth century AD by Theodosius the Great.
But with the collapse of this difference in the evolution of science from its “humanist” Renaissance backdrop, the Apostles in the art of Damien Hirst can just as well be pictured as sheep, since there is no longer any difference between them ontologically speaking. Their only differences nowadays are biological and anatomical, but not metaphysical. Both are simply kinds of entities that can be plugged into the grid, where all entities are the same and equally capable of infinite iterability.
Hirst Phase II
Long about 1997-98, Hirst’s career as an artist began to falter. He bought a restaurant, which he called Pharmacy (named after his 1992 installation), and tried to run it for a time, while his art began to flicker and slowly, to fade out. By then he was very nearly the most famous artist alive, and interviews conducted with Gordon Burn at this time show him wrestling with the problems of fame and what to do with himself as an artist. He wasn’t sure.
So this period neatly divides Hirst’s career (like one of his vitrines) in half: there is the Hirst of Phase I and the Hirst of Phase II, and they are actually very different artists. They continue, however, with the same project of excavating the ontological structures of globalization, but they do so from different angles and begin to bring in new media (such as painting).
The key work that marks the rebirth of Hirst’s art, and inaugurates Hirst Phase II, is a 1999 vitrine entitled Adam and Eve (Banished from the Garden). (shown above) This is actually composed of two connected vitrines, inside each of which a corpse covered by a sheet (one male and one female, apparently) rests upon a mortuary gurney. They are arranged end to end, rather than side by side.
By splicing together the visual signifiers of these two corpses with the linguistic signifiers “Adam” and “Eve,” Hirst in a certain sense revisits the Life and Death thematic of his very first vitrine A Thousand Years. Adam and Eve are the first two seeds, as it were, of the human species; they are the seeds which, when planted, result in the germination of the swarms of human beings that follow them throughout the millennia. They are like the fly larvae planted in the cow’s head: in Zoroastrian mythology, the first man, Gayomart is killed at the same time as the first bull, the Cosmic Ox. From the bull’s semen come all the world’s animals; from its spinal marrow, all the plants, while from the bones of the dead man come all the world’s metals and minerals. According to the same mythology, at the end of Time, Gayomart will be the first man resurrected, and the fact that, in Hirst’s vitrine, we are also confronted by a pair of corpses obliquely suggests the resurrection of the dead at the end of history during the Last Judgment, in which Adam and Eve would be the first to crawl forth from their graves (like flies from the cow’s skull) to begin the process of Apocalypse.
Thus, by cross-splicing religious signifiers now into his vitrines, Hirst’s work begins to open up a new hyperdimensional phase space around his earlier flattened ontology of a grid of semiotic place holders. That ontology had been the ontology of the scientific world order in which entities could be removed from the conditions of their lifeworld contexts and simply treated as Derridean units of iterability. This was a flat, horizontal and two-dimensional world view, and it was a world view, moreover, directed entirely and exclusively at the physical body. The subtle, or metaphysical body, and the dimensions of the spirit world, were left out of account.
But now, Hirst, in his second phase as an artist, and increasingly more and more often, begins to genetically modify his works by cross-splicing them with religious signifiers that begin to open a new “vertical” dimension of meaning that “crosses” in an almost perpendicular manner the horizontal plane of his grid of deworlded entities.
The religious signifiers, at first, begin to crowd in only through the titles, as in the case of Adam and Eve (Banished from the Garden), or two other important works from this period, Hymn (1999) and Trinity: Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology (2000). Hymn (shown above) is simply a twenty foot tall bronze monumentalization of the anatomical model from his first medicine cabinet, Sinner, although both its title (which suggests a religious hymnbook) and its scale (which suggests something like Michelangelo’s David) have religious connotations. And Trinity, (shown below) which is a series of three vitrines jammed full of anatomical models of various bodily organs and parts, provides us with the missing half of the medicine cabinets, for Hirst is here displaying all the organs that each of the pills in the medicine bottles on the shelves of those vitrines were designed to treat as remedies. So, in a way, Hirst rebegins his art by returning on the spiral in a classic Hegelian Aufhebung, back to his first works and recoding them: scaling them up, multiplying them, miniaturizing them, providing their missing halves, etc. The process, however, is not just one of repeating himself, as many of his critics has accused him; rather, the second half of his work consists in recoding the earlier works by genetically modifying them with religious signifiers in an effort to create entirely new signifieds.
Hymn, for example, becomes the template for a number of religiously themed works of this period. His Virgin Mother (shown below) of 2005 is essentially Degas’s sculpture of a fourteen year old dancer combined with the anatomical cut away of Hymn and cross-spliced with the motif of the Virgin who is about to give birth to a god. The same thing applies to his 2008 sculpture, Anatomy of an Angel (shown at the top of this article), half of whose body is an anatomical cut away, and to his recent 2010 and 2011 sculptures, Myth and Legend, which are visions of a unicorn and a Pegasus horse with half of their bodies anatomically cut away.
But soon, the religious linguistic signifiers begin to give way to religious images which infect the actual works themselves which, by 2005, have been almost completely overcoded by religious themes. The Inescapable Truth, (shown below) for example, is a vitrine containing a dove hovering above the top of a human skull, in an oblique reference to the baptism of Christ. In The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Hirst gives us a bull’s heart inside a vitrine that has been lacerated with pins and needles like a displaced image of Saint Sebastian, while In the Name of the Father gives us a sheep in place of the crucified Christ. In 2007, he even creates a series of statues of Saint Bartholomew complete with flayed skin and scissors and knife.
In her essay on Hirst’s work, Marina Warner dismisses these images as “obvious” and not worth a second glance, but they are worth a second thought, especially by comparison with the works he was doing in the first half of his career. In cross-splicing religious signifiers (in both linguistic and imagistic form) into his works, Hirst is not only creating a second, vertical order (of religion) to cross (over) the horizontal plane of his earlier flattened ontology of science, but the religious signifiers themselves, it is important to note, have been deworlded just like the entities of the first vitrines and spot paintings. The religious signifiers, that is to say, like the formaldehyde animals, have been ontologically removed from the circumstances of their lifeworlds, although not the lifeworlds in the physical environmental sense, but their religious lifeworlds. Hirst’s religious signifiers have been extracted from the Catholic tradition that he grew up in and placed into the ontological phase space of his grid, just like the animals, the flies, the spots and all the other entities of the earlier vitrines. Once inside this phase space, where they have been cut free from the Abgrund of their lifeworld tradition, they can now be genetically cross-spliced with the other signifiers. The signifier of the Virgin Mother, let’s say, can now be hybridized with an anatomical model; or the signifiers of the arrows that killed Saint Sebastian can be spliced together with a bull’s heart; or the dove of the Annunciation removed from the life conditions of its traditional painting where it is shown descending toward Christ’s head, and placed on the inside of a scientific vitrine that mathematically brackets it and cuts it off from all traditional systems of meaning whatsoever.
These signifiers, in other words, decontextualized from the grounds of all their traditional religious worlds, no longer mean what they did in those traditions. They have become floating signifiers in the capitalist phase space, where they point to the meta-processes of the conditions that make that very phase space possible in the first place: splicing, hybridizing, modifying and creating the equivalent of religious GMOs. These genetically modified images have altogether different meanings on the inside of this global phase space than what they had before. These meanings, furthermore, are not specified or predetermined in advance, but left up to the art viewer to decide for himself. Hirst, in these religious GMOs, provides the viewer with the signifiers, but it is the viewer who must now assemble them to create new signifieds.
For instance, the descent of the dove toward the skull in the vitrine called The Inescapable Truth no longer signifies the descent of the Holy Spirit into Christ at the moment of his baptism by John. Christ, for one thing, was never signified by a mere skull (that signifier usually referred to Adam). So what does the dove’s descent refer to?
Who knows? That’s up to the art viewer to decide for himself. The artist doesn’t know, either, for in the age of contemporary art, it is now up to the viewer to create his own Truth Event.
The needles piercing the bull’s heart in The Sacred Heart of Jesus (shown above) no longer refer to Saint Sebastian, who didn’t have a bull’s heart. What, then, do they refer to? The signified is missing, and has to be constructed by the viewer.
So, Hirst’s religious works, I think, do deserve a second, more thoughtful glance, since they are essentially syncopated images left incomplete in order to invite the viewer to fill in the missing dimensions of meaning. (In this sense, they are equivalent to Lacan’s variable sessions, in which he would terminate the session when the patient was mid-sentence, or when a silence had fallen, in order to invite the “fill in” on the part of the patient’s unconscious.)
In the global capitalist phase space, all the signifiers have come uprooted from the earth and are floating in the air, along with all the other entities, in strange new configurations that might, or might not, amount to anything meaningful. They cannot simply be dismissed, however, and taking an attitude of superiority toward such works of art will only succeed in underestimating their imagination-stimulating properties.
In the Middle Ages (and even in the Renaissance), we were force fed meaning. The meanings of the images were prefabricated and they left no room for the viewer’s imagination to interact with them. An image of the Baptism of Christ or the Last Supper was simply that: the Baptism of Christ and the Last Supper, whose meanings had already been fixed and worked out in the various Christian councils over the centuries.
Even in Modernist Art, the meanings of the images – though considerably more fluid than in Medieval or Renaissance art – were still largely fixed by the processes of what Modernist Art, taken as a whole, was doing: creating a multiperspectival phase space, for instance, or updating Jungian mythic archetypes.
This is no longer the case in contemporary art, in which the meanings are as fresh as whatever the viewer brings to the art works. There is no fixed meaning associated with them: only hermeneutical constructions that incarnate each specific work as a Truth Event (a descent of the dove, perhaps?) that is recreated for each viewer in that viewer’s intimate interaction with the work.
Such is the fate of meaning in the age of post-historic civilization.
 See the collages in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (United Kingdom: Booth-Clibborn, 1997), 69-73.
 Ibid., 138-39.
 Ibid., 150-51.