: Series

Natural History

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

"They come out of the urge to communicate an idea, to make art that is more real."[1] 

Hirst started working with formaldehyde in 1991. His first ‘Natural History’ works were a pair of fish cabinets, planned whilst at Goldsmiths, titled ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding’ (1991). The cabinets were followed in the same year by ‘The Lovers’ (1991), ‘Anaesthetics (and the Way they Affect the Mind and Body)’, 'Stimulants (and the Way they Affect the Mind and Body)' (1991) and the shark piece, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991). The series contains some of the artist’s most widely recognised and important works. 

With ‘Natural History’, Hirst intended to create a zoo of dead animals, as an alternative to, “having living ones pacing around in misery”. As he explains: “The Victorians were tough, but fuck knows what they were playing at. How arrogant of them to say, let’s get the world and bring it home to us. Let’s have zoos.” [2] 

For the artist, the appeal of the animals lies in their real visual impact. He explains: “I always thought it would be great if art galleries were more like the Natural History Museum (London), where you go in and there’s this big wow factor, rather than having to ask yourself, 'What am I supposed to be thinking?’” Injected with formaldehyde, and preserved in tanks of the solution, the creatures used in the series have ranged from the formidable to the banal. Whilst the thirteen-foot tiger shark in ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991) was used to “represent a fear” (a quote from Steven Speilberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975)), many of the early ‘Natural History’ works, including ‘Away from the Flock’ (1994) and ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ (1993), contain animals commonly bred for food. 

The ‘Natural History’ works are sometimes displayed in wall cabinets but, more frequently, in minimalist glass and steel vitrines. The aesthetic impact of the tank is important, as Hirst explains, “I think that I am drawn to minimalism but then want to fuck it up in some way, like make a Sol LeWitt box and then put a dead animal in it.”[3] The tank’s size varies according to the work. Whilst the lamb in ‘Away from the Flock’ (1994) is tightly contained, the shark in ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1990) sits centrally in a vast eighteen-foot tank of formaldehyde, so that it appears “big enough to eat you.” In the case of the cows in, for example ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ (1993), a small gap is left between the animals’ hooves and the base of the vitrine so that, “even the cows seem light, almost weightless, like ballet dancers”. Appearing more tragic than scientific, the series is partially a study of the failure of science in that you have to “kill something in order to look at it”. 

The formaldehyde itself is used as much to communicate an idea as to preserve.[4] The solution, extremely toxic despite its innocuous appearance, is associated with fear and memory, or the loss of it, for Hirst. In the 1991 work ‘Anaesthetics (and the Way They Affect the Mind and Body)’, Hirst filled two tanks solely with the solution. He adds: “Sometimes I think you can create more of a kind of horror with empty water. A big empty tank of water is quite a frightening thing.”[5] 

Since 1991, the series has included animals variously divided, crucified, skinned and in positions of prayer. In 2006, Hirst exhibited a triptych titled ‘The Tranquility of Solitude (for George Dyer)’ (2006), which incorporated three flayed sheep carcasses in a remake of Francis Bacon’s ‘Triptych May–June 1973’ (1973). 

At ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’, Hirst’s auction at Sotheby’s (2008), Hirst unveiled a new collection of ‘Natural History’ works. These pieces, addressing myth and legend, religion and reality, include ‘The Dream’ (2008) – a unicorn made up of a white foal with harwal horn – and ‘The Golden Calf’ (2008) ­– a young bull with golden hooves and horns representing the subject of the Israelites’ idolatrous behaviour on Moses departure in Exodus.

[1] Damien Hirst cited in, Damien Hirst ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’ (Booth-Clibborn Editions; Reduced edition, 2005), 279

[2] Damien Hirst cited in ‘Like People, Like Flies: Damien Hirst Interviewed’, Mirta D’Argenzio, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989–2004’ (Electa Napoli, 2004), 122

[3] ibid.,134–135

[4] Damien Hirst, ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere...’, 286

[5] Damien Hirst cited in ‘Like People, Like Flies: Damien Hirst Interviewed’, Mirta D’Argenzio, 136