In contrast to the happy promise of recovery and redemption implied by many of Hirst’s other cabinets, which see the artist arrange brightly colored pills to indicate the promise of salvation, The Stygian Shore suggests a malady beyond redemption. Executed nearly a decade after the first Pill Cabinets, which date from the end of the 1990s, The Stygian Shore can be seen a logical step in the progression of one of Hirst’s most iconic series. Born of the Medicine Cabinets, rows of empty pharmaceutical packaging presented in rudimentary MDF and glass vitrines, the Pill Cabinets debuted in 2000 at Gagosian Galley in New York as part of Hirst’s celebrated show, Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings. Unlike their predecessors, these new works placed great emphasis on the process and precision of their manufacture, their cool aesthetic echoing the mechanical production of pharmaceutical products. Furthermore, taken solely as an aesthetic object, there is an unabashed beauty to the work which was entirely absent from the Medicine Cabinets. Individually cast and painted, the contents of the boxes are now on view, pills duplicated repeatedly on mirrored surfaces in a Minimalist glass vitrine. Evoking comparisons with the restrained simplicity and elegance of Donald Judd’s stacks, as well as a conceptual and aesthetic comparison with Jeff Koons’s Jim Beam Train, which places a similar emphasis on manufactured perfection, and renders impotent and function-less its contents in a similar fashion to Hirst's pills, the Pill Cabinets elevate the mundane to the realm of high art.
However, Hirst’s purpose here is not simply aesthetic, but rather to hold a mirror to our collective response and aversion to death. Like the traditional motif of the memento mori, the pills become a constant reminder of our fragility and mortality, of our desperation to survive. The reflective surfaces also visually implicate the viewer in the facile struggle for survival which gives The Stygian Shore its conceptual bent, and the razor-sharp edges of the shelves imply a degree of danger inherent in the process of self-medication. Even the title plays with this juxtaposition of death and the possibility of survival. The Stygian Shore refers to the banks of the Styx, the river of death which separated Earth from the Underworld in Greek mythology, and the very place where Achilles’s mother submerged her son in the river, rendering him invulnerable except for the heel by which she held him. Achilles of course became the great hero of the Greek armies during the Trojan war, but as immortalized in the Iliad, he is eventually killed by the cowardly Paris, who pierces his heel with an arrow. Even with divine protection, Achilles could not survive, and in an age where medicine has supplanted organized religion as the locus of man’s hope of recovery, and individual pills and drugs have replaced specific saints for the resolution of physical complaints, Hirst highlights the incapacity of both to reliably resolve our ailments. This blind faith has always irked the artist. 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)
Confronting the dichotomies of life and death, science and religion, which have preoccupied Hirst throughout his provocative and wildly successful career, the present work is a conceptually rigorous and aesthetically astounding example from Damien Hirst’s most desirable series. Conflating religion and myth, the work conjures the sense of a modern-day Wunderkammer filled with an encyclopedia of medicine arranged with a rigorous formality. Emblematizing the tablets and pills, Hirst mocks our societal reliance upon them, and even offers an alternative: “I’ve always really loved this idea of art, maybe, you know, curing people.” (Damien Hirst quoted in Ibid., p. 25)
Representing a visual analogue to the human body, with each pill serving a specific function in the resolution of various bodily complaints, the piece epitomizes Hirst’s idea that “you've got all these individual elements inside a cabinet related to organs inside a body." (The artist quoted in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 25) The resulting works are monumental altarpieces to modern medicine, deifying its life-giving capabilities. In the vacuum left by the gradual erosion of organized religious practices and specific saints to be worshipped for the resolution of individual physical complaints, pills and drugs have become a new belief system upon which we can rest our hopes and dreams of survival.
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