Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2010
In Search of Nirvana is an altarpiece to modern medicine; Hirst taps into our blind credence in the restorative life-giving powers of pills and highlights the usurpation of traditional religion by chemically engineered drugs. Just as societies of the past used art for the evocation of saintliness, populating chapels and cathedrals with paintings inspired by biblical scenes to engender an atmosphere conducive to religious fervour, so here Hirst presents an artistic shrine to the new religion of science. In the vacuum left by the decline of organised religion, Hirst creates a new pantheon of saints for adulation – ‘Voltaron’, ‘Bufferin’, ‘Progardia XL’ – each is given an individual name and each is bestowed with its own mystical healing ability. In the minute exactitude of each pill, individually named and placed with precision, we are compelled to adopt a monastic level of pious observation, examining every item with diligence. Hirst frames doctors and pharmacists as shamans of our society, masters of our excessive trust in the capacity of drugs to extend and preserve life, and guardians of the alchemical powers of science. As he has said: “I can’t understand why most people believe in medicine and don’t believe in art, without questioning either” (Damien Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 2005, p. 24). The myriad pills of the present work are modern day memento mori. If each one exists as a tiny promise of the extension of life, then their unified message is a deafening reminder of the inevitability of death.
On a formal level, there is an unabashed beauty in the candy-coloured pharmaceuticals juxtaposed against the elegant mirrored vitrine. Moreover, while Hirst’s paradigm-shifting oeuvre has been undeniably original, the present work seems to make ample reference to art-historical precedent. All of the medicines on display are precise reproductions of real medicines; to appropriate them with such shelved commerciality is to inherit the legacy of Warhol’s tins of Campbell’s Soup. Meanwhile, in the bright reflection and stacked linear composition of the vitrine itself, we are reminded of the chic minimalism of Donald Judd. Most pertinently, the spell-binding plethora of colour in this work, which produces an almost pointillist effect, seems to make reference to Gerhard Richter’s 1970s Colour Chart paintings. This sense of euphoric polychromy abounds through Hirst’s praxis, and is immensely important to him. In his own words: “I believe all art should be uplifting for the viewer… I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz” (Ibid., p. 246).
Ever since the beginning of his career, Hirst has expressed a passion for classified collection and display. In childhood, he was affected by a neighbour who returned home each day and arranged found objects with meticulous hierarchical precision, according to a detailed system unfathomable to anyone but him. In this context, we can understand In Search of Nirvana as something of a modern day Wunderkammer; a curiosity cabinet filled with an encyclopaedia of medicine, arranged with sense of rigorous formality. These pills speak of the futility of that human compulsion to organise, classify, and control the things we fear most. In emblematising each tablet in this impressive work of mesmeric beauty, Hirst both mocks society’s belief in them, and offers us an alternative: “I’ve always really loved this idea of art, maybe, you know, curing people” (Damien Hirst quoted in: Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 25).
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