Details & Cataloguing

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Damien Hirst
B. 1965
glass, stainless steel, steel, nickel, brass, rubber, blood, earth, chalice, resin, rosary beads, china bird, candle, ashtray, cigarettes, plastic tubing, surgical instruments and laboratory glassware
180 by 90 by 27 cm. 70 7/8 by 35 1/2 by 10 1/2 in.
Executed in 2003.
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White Cube, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner


London, White Cube, Damien Hirst: Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, October 2003
Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, September - October 2013 (on loan), n.p., illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Few artists have come to define a generation quite like Damien Hirst, whose formative contribution to the Young British Artists (YBAs) in the 1990s heralded the emergence of one of the most pivotal groups of contemporary artists just before the turn of the millennium. As the preeminent member of the YBAs, Hirst’s practice set the tone of the British art superstars, channeling the commercialised sublime through questions of life, death and love in a rigorously clinical and meticulous vocabulary of forms. The Death of Saint John is an exceptional example of Hirst’s Instrument Cabinets, combining the artist’s philosophical, Romantic investigations into death, religiosity and science with the iconic taxonomies of his Medicine Cabinets. First exhibited as part of the complete series of The Apostles works in his solo exhibition ‘Romance in the Age of Uncertainty’ at White Cube in 2003, the present work is a wonderfully vivid example that demonstrates Hirst’s deep engagement with religious doctrines and the Duchampian readymade, energised by the punkish histrionics of the artist’s unparalleled style.

Representing the deaths of the twelve disciples and the ascension of Jesus, the thirteen cabinets – originally showcased at White Cube in 2003 – depict the respective martyrdom of each; at times violent and excessive, for others uniform and serene. Saint John, wholly unique in this instance, was the only apostle to die of old age. The present work, therefore, dedicated to John, attests to a ‘full’ life, littered with such items as medical flasks and bottles, utensils, an ashtray, a skull and a candle. Combining the narratives of the Christian tradition with the cold, antiseptic tools of science, Hirst reproduces the act of religious fervour in enthralling, contemporary terms. For the artist, “there were four important things in life: religion, love, art and science. At their best, they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness […] Of them all, science seems to be the one right now. Like religion, it provides a glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end” (Damien Hirst cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Paul Stolper Gallery, Damien Hirst: New Religion, 2005, p. 5). What emerges through Hirst’s collection of objects, interwoven as they are with theological propositions, is an abstracted portrait of the New Testament Saint, tracing an allegorical undercurrent of studious, religious-philosophical commitment in the scientific vessels, the rosary beads, the candle, and the archetype of the vanitas picture, the skull.

Hirst undoubtedly belongs to the canon of artist-impresarios, including Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, whose practices are bound to a virtuosic theatricality, producing spectacular exhibitions that synthesise an overwhelming aesthetic syntax with fundamental epistemological and socio-cultural questions. His singular endeavour, however, produces a plethora of contemporary ‘memento mori’, imbricating the aesthetics of commercial display and advertising with the motifs of science and religion. The Death of Saint John heralds an evolution of Hirst’s earlier Medicine Cabinets that displayed meticulously arranged antibiotic pills, medical instruments and preserved marine life in systematic order; compiling a categorical, near-analytical study of an object and its variants. In the present work, the system of objects – once so fastidiously compiled – is cluttered and disorderly, conveying the fragility and untidy nature of life and death. In this series of Hirst’s more explicitly religious works, the artist achieves a rare sense of realism in his work. Like the exhibitionism of his animals in formaldehyde, The Death of Saint John is less a representation of reality than an iteration of reality itself. As art historian and curator Ann Gallagher highlights: “Hirst creates art through direct engagement with the stuff of life so that it might become life itself – an impossibility, if taken to its logical conclusion” (Andrew Wilson, ‘Believer’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Damien Hirst, 2012, p. 205). In the present work, Hirst takes a collection of objects to their spiritual apogee, sealing them in a baroque layering of apparatus and devotional items. Intricate and compelling, The Death of Saint John is an exemplary work from a unique series of cabinets by one of the most important and celebrated artists of the current period.

Contemporary Art Day Auction