Signification (Hope, Immortality and Death in Paris, Now and Then), 2014



Signification (Hope, Immortality and Death in Paris, Now and Then)
2685 x 901 x 358 mm | 101 x 35.5 x 14.1 in
Glass, stainless steel, steel, nickel, brass, rubber, oak, domestic cleaning products, household gloss on skull, mounted ornithology, rodent and mammal taxidermy specimens, mounted taxidermy with fire damage, mounted entomology specimens, mounted pearl Nautilus shell, cut and fold paper frog, ostrich eggs with artist's inscriptions, purple barnacle cluster, dried knobby starfish, dried white finger starfish, air pistol and pellets, hunting knife, white calcite on aragonite crystal, human skull, skeletons and security tags
Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst/Science Ltd., All rights reserved DACS 2014


Testament to Hirst’s enduring love of natural history, 'Signification' is a Wunderkammer, a contemporary cabinet of curiosities that follows a historical tradition dating back to the sixteenth century. The stainless steel and glass wall-mounted cabinet is filled with a cornucopia of taxidermy, entomology and skeletons, chosen by the artist from the French emporium Deyrolle’s extraordinary collection of natural specimen. These are displayed alongside a selection of manmade or appropriated objects including ubiquitous household cleaning products, weapons and objects designed or decorated by the artist.

Wunderkammer were conceived in sixteenth century Europe as visual encyclopaedias. Addressing the areas of intersection between atavistic myth, science and belief, they combined the produce of man (arteficialia) and nature (naturalia) in order to create an often-manipulated vision of the world, as envisaged by the collector. With 'Signification', Hirst appears to simultaneously ascribe to, and play with these historical traditions. Whilst the Victorians, whom Hirst has had a lifelong fascination with, used Wunderkammer to demonstrate their dominance over what Oscar Wilde described as the ‘absolutely unfinished condition’ of nature – organising specimen into rigid, taxonomic categories – 'Signification', with its varied and overlapping contents, impresses more humanity’s lack of control in the face of life’s unfathomable mysteries.

Since the late 80s, Hirst has continuously employed cabinets, tanks and vitrines as a means of framing his works. The style of 'Signification'’s cabinet derives from the artist’s iconic series of ‘Instrument Cabinets’, conceived in the early 90s. The sense of permanence created by the clinical minimalism of the steel, described by Hirst as ‘a completely sexy material’, is pitched against the inevitable transience of life and the flesh: the taxidermy and skeletons become memento mori, whilst the decorated skull – spun in the style of Hirst’s famous painting series – presents an alternative, the artist’s attempt at the impossible: celebrating or masking death so as to make it into something else, to remove fear with art, or at least make it palatable.

As is traditional in Wunderkammer, the beauty of the natural world is also celebrated, particularly with the inclusion of the entomological display of butterflies, captured in an emulation of flight. Hirst has employed the butterfly as a symbol of the fragility and beauty of life since the late 1980s. 

The brightly coloured cleaning products, with their Pop-art style lettering and childishly pleasing forms, are employed by the artist as a symbol of contemporary society’s utopian aspirations, Hirst explains: “they give us hope, some might say false hope, they seem to say that we can achieve immorality through cleanliness, that we can somehow make the bad things in the world go away, which of course we can’t.” As so often with Hirst’s work however, a counterpoint is offered: the gun and knife reminding of the ever-present destructive potential of man.

In 'Signification', Hirst offers us a glimpse of his often-playful view of the world, both in all its mystery and its familiar reality: the artifice, consumerism, uncertainty, violence, beauty and the awe and wonder of it all.