‘The Golden Calf’ was the focal piece in the Sotheby’s auction, ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ (2008). Encased in a gold vitrine and mounted on a plinth of Carrara marble, the formaldehyde-preserved British Charolais bull has horns and hooves cast in solid 18 carat gold.
The work’s title refers to the Exodus account of the Israelites’ idolatrous worship of a Golden Calf during Moses’s absence. As in traditional artistic depictions of the idol, Hirst’s calf is crowned with a sun disc of solid gold, a symbol of pagan deification. The artist named another work shown at Sotheby’s – a similarly displayed young calf with golden hooves – ‘False Idol’ (2008).
Through its opulent materials, the work elevates the cow recurrent in earlier ‘Natural History’ works. Hirst explains the prevalence of gold at the Sotheby’s auction is “definitely all about feeling a bit like King Midas”. Whilst noting that increased wealth naturally extends an artist’s reach, he also references the double-edged conceptual appeal of the metal. “Gold’s the thing [that], when you open the briefcase in the movies, shines on you and sucks you in. It brings out the worst in you as well as the best. Midas dies of starvation, doesn’t he?”
In 2010, Hirst debunked the immortality inferred on ‘The Golden Calf’ by unveiling ‘End of an Era’ (2009) at an exhibition of the same name at Gagosian Gallery, New York – a tank which appeared to contain the decapitated head of the earlier work.