Of all the leitmotifs Hirst has explored, from sharks to pills to disembodied oxen, the butterfly is among Hirst’s earliest and most mesmerising. Even before his first show involving butterflies at the Woodstock Gallery in 1991, Hirst was interested in butterflies. In his Brixton bedroom, Hirst constructed a giant wooden box where he bred and hatched pupae. For his now emblematic 1991 show, In and Out of Love, Hirst moved his butterfly greenhouse into the gallery space. In one room, butterflies hatched from pupae attached to white canvases and went through their lives inside the gallery space. In the second room, dead butterflies were fixed to monochrome gloss paintings like taxidermies in a Darwinian display cabinet.
If the monochrome butterfly paintings immortalised Hirst’s obsession with death and life’s ephemeral beauty, then the introduction of gold as background imbued his concept with the solemnity of religion and spirituality. The monochrome gold background in The Midas Principle recalls the gilded backdrops to depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints in Byzantine mosaics and Italian panel paintings. Gold, in addition to its economic value, was chosen as a symbol of eternity. Under the auspices of golden backgrounds and halos, the artworks told the stories of Christ and the saints, of their eventual return and the advent of eternal life. The Midas Principle, through its use of gold, bestows this holy trinity of birth, death and resurrection onto the life cycles of butterflies, so that their existence is elevated to divine significance.
Beyond the celebration of life’s brevity and beauty, The Midas Principle conveys a more sinister, tragic message. In Greek mythology, King Midas was gifted the ability to turn anything he touched into gold. Such power, though initially celebrated, heralded a gruelling end. As the King touched his daughter, she morphed unwittingly into a golden statue. Even his food turned to metal as he reached out for it. Ever adept at re-staging traditional narratives in contemporary contexts, Hirst ironically imagines himself as a Midas-figure: “It's definitely about feeling a bit like King Midas,
like everything he touches turns to gold. And there are bad aspects of what can happen with that as well. Gold's the thing when you open the briefcase in the movie, it shines on you and sucks you in” (Damien Hirst in conversation with Gordon Burn in: Auc. Cat., Sotheby's, London, Beautiful inside My Head Forever, 27 June 2008, p. 24).
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