The gilded skeleton of a three-metre tall woolly mammoth, is presented in a colossal steel and glass vitrine.
The mammoth is the largest earth-dwelling mammal of all time. This three-metre tall skeleton belongs to a Mammuthus Primigenius, one of the last mammoth species to have existed. Aside from isolated populations on the Siberian island of Wrangel, the woolly mammoth became extinct over 10,000 years ago.
The sculpture forms part of Hirst’s ‘Natural History’ series, which he began in the early 1990s, with work including the shark in formaldehyde, 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' (1991), and the bisected cow and calf, 'Mother and Child (Divided)' (1993).These pieces came out of an urge to, ‘communicate an idea, to make art that is more real’, and to replicate the immediate visual impact of Natural History museum displays. The steel tanks provide a frame for each animal, whilst the glass – in its simultaneous solidity and transparency – is a comment on the fragility of existence.
Hirst began incorporating gold into the ‘Natural History’ works in 2008, the same year as his ground-breaking Sotheby’s auction, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. For the artist, this was partially a reflection on ‘feeling like King Midas’. As Hirst explains: ‘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?'
The ‘Natural History’ series explores the scientific failure of needing to kill something in order to look at it. With Gone but Not Forgotten, however, the artist addresses not only questions of life and death, but also myth, legend and reality. The mammoth is a creature that irrefutably existed, but one that also has an almost mythical status: both historically – in Ancient Greece, it was the discovery of mammoth skulls, with their large naval cavities, that arguably gave rise to the legend of the one-eyed Cyclops – but also because they come from and a time and place we cannot fully comprehend. Mimicking Victorian modes of display, Hirst turns the skeleton into an opulent curiousity object. The gold removes the mammoth even further from a conceivable reality until it becomes, like death, something we can only ever attempt to understand.
The viewer is left to contemplate an unavoidably finite expression of mortality. However, by decorating the bones, Hirst also explores the possibility of achieving a symbolic victory over death, as he did with the diamond skull, 'For the Love of God' (2007). As he explained of the skull: “You don’t like it, so you disguise it or you decorate it to make it look like something bearable – to such an extent that it becomes something else."
The unique piece was donated by the artist, to aid amfAR's work in the fight against AIDS. Founded in 1985, amfAR is dedicated to ending the global AIDS epidemic through innovate research. It has invested more than $388 million in its programs and has awarded more than 3,300 grants to research teams worldwide. Hirst's work contrinbuted €11 million euros to the auction.
Hirst explained of the piece: "The mammoth comes from a time and place that we cannot ever fully understand. Despite its scientific reality, it has attained an almost mythical status and I wanted to play with these ideas of legend, history and science by gilding the skeleton and placing it within a monolithic gold tank. It's such an absolute expression of mortality, but I've decorated it to the point where it's become something else, I've pitched everything I can against death to create something more hopeful, it is Gone but not Forgotten."