The Acquired Inability to Escape, 1991



The Acquired Inability to Escape
2134 x 3048 x 2134 mm | 84 x 120 x 84 in
Glass, steel, silicone rubber, Formica, MDF, chair, ashtray, lighter and cigarettes
Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012


Group Exhibition - 2016
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland
Solo Exhibition - 2013
ALRIWAQ, Qatar Museums Authority, Doha, Qatar
Solo Exhibition - 2012
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
Group Exhibition - 2006
Guangdong Museum of Art, Beijing, China
Solo Exhibition - 2004
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, Italy
Group Exhibition - 1992
Fondation Asher Edelman, Lausanne, Switzerland
Solo Exhibition - 1992
Third International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey
Solo Exhibition - 1991
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, United Kingdom


‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’ is part of ‘Internal Affairs’, a series of works Hirst exhibited in his first solo show in a public gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1991. Explaining that he liked “the near nonsense of the logic”, Hirst intended the series as a means to, “look into myself, to work out or try to work out why my body is separated from my mind or if indeed it is.”[1] Unlike most of his other series, ‘Internal Affairs’ contains works made in a variety of mediums. As the artist explained in 1991: “I thought the ideas involved in ‘Internal Affairs’ needed to be realized in more than one sculpture. It had to be approached from different angles.”[2]

The work’s title came before the piece. It originated from a conversation Hirst had with Ulrich Loock, then Director of the Kunsthalle Bern, in which Loock mistranslated the title of Bruce Nauman’s ‘Learned Helplessness in Rats’ (1988) as ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’.[3]

The rectangular glass and steel vitrine is divided into two areas, Hirst describes its dimensions, size and shape as the perfect mathematical formula. The larger space contains a desk chair and a table on which cigarettes, a lighter, and a full ashtray sit. Of the use of cigarettes in the piece Hirst explains, “I want a glimpse of an idea of what it’s like to die.”[4] The sealed empty compartment in front of the desk works to produce both a narrative mystery and a feeling of entrapment. The artist explains the work’s conceptual meaning: “It is like you are spiritually excluded or something, you are getting into the space, and then there is nothing on the other side […] the whole thing traps you and keeps you trapped.”[5]

Between 1993 and 2008, Hirst created four variations of ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’, inverting, dividing and purifying the original through painting it white.

[1] Damien Hirst cited in ‘Damien Hirst & Sophie Calle’, ‘Internal Affairs’ (ICA/Jay Jopling, 1991), unpag.

[2] ibid.

[3] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 27

[4] Damien Hirst cited in ‘Damien Hirst & Sophie Calle’, ‘Internal Affairs’ (ICA/Jay Jopling, 1991), unpag.

[5] 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), 128–129