Executed between 2004 and 2005, Painkillers is a part of the Fact Paintings series, which reproduce photographs with realistic precision through the traditional medium of oil on canvas. This series investigates society’s inclination to categorise photography as fact and painting as fiction, positing the question as to whether it is photography’s medium or representation that imbues it with a sense of truth. Speaking of his thoughts behind the works, Hirst remarked: “I want them to be like newspaper pictures, factual and non-expressive. I want you to believe in them in the same way as you believe in the Medicine Cabinets" (Damien Hirst in conversation with Sarah Kent, Time Out, November 2006, online).
Painkillers references the themes of science and medical advertising that Hirst began to explore in his Medical Cabinets, which were initially conceived in his student days in 1989. Comprised of empty pill boxes entombed in transparent glass display cases, Hirst’s Medicine Cabinets pay homage to the Renaissance cabinets of curiosities which populated the private studies of scholars and royalty. By placing pharmaceutical packaging in a museum setting, Hirst highlights people’s faith in medical advertising as a peculiar phenomenon to contemporary society, claiming: “In 100 years’ time they will look like an old apothecary. A museum of something that’s around today” (Damien Hirst cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, L&M Arts, Damien Hirst: The Complete Medicine Cabinets, 2010, p. 139). Painkillers exemplifies Hirst’s creative process of imbuing seemingly mundane items from everyday life with historical, even religious, significance. Through its rendition in oil on canvas, the paracetamol is lifted out of the pharmaceutical case and transformed into a symbol for science’s promise to liberate us from pain and suffering.
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