Life Itself

Group Exhibition. Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden.

20 February 2016 – 8 May 2016

'With Dead Head' (1991)

Photographed by André Morin-Le-Jeune
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2016

The exhibition 'Life Itself' at Stockholm's Moderna Museet explores the fundamental question of what life is. Despite contemporary advanced theories about complex systems and the potential of synthetic biology, the exhibition posits that we are still unable to determine what constitutes life.

The show features work from the early 20th century, when avant-garde artists were endeavouring to categorise existence, as well as contemporary pieces. Hirst's work 'With Dead Head' (1991), a photograph sealed onto aluminium, features in the exhibition. The image, dating from 1981, shows a teenage Hirst with a severed head, pictured in the Leeds anatomy school he regularly visited to make life drawings.

Hirst has described the formative experience of seeing dead bodies as a teenager: ‘When I was really young, I wanted to know about death and I went to the morgue and I got these bodies and I felt sick and I thought I was going to die and it was awful. And I went back and I went back and I drew them. And the point where death starts and life stops, for me, in my mind, before I saw them, was there. And then when I’d seen them and I’d dealt with them for a while, it was over there again. It’s like I was holding them. And they were just dead bodies. Death was moved a bit further away.”[1] 

‘With Dead Head’ is an expression of the difficulties inherent in attempting to understand our own mortality, and in dealing with the “unacceptable idea” of death.[2] Hirst explains: “To me, the smile and everything seemed to sum up this problem between life and death. It was such a ridiculous way of being at the point of trying to come to terms with it, especially being sixteen [...] This is life and this is death.”[3]

Other artists featured in the exhibition are Giovanni Anselmo, Olga Balema, Hicham Berrada, Joseph Beuys, Karl Blossfeldt, Victor Brauner, Trisha Donnelly, Pierre Huyghe, Tehching Hsieh, Josh Kline, Hilma af Klint, Helen Marten, Katja Novitskova, Philippe Parreno, Rachel Rose, Paul Thek, and Rosemarie Trockel. The exhibition was curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Carsten Höller and Jo Widoff.

[1] Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 36
[2] ibid., 22
[3] ibid., 35