Any great art work or object gives more than it takes. The amazing thing about diamonds is that they take light and throw it back at you, although they seem to throw more light out than they take in […] But they have a dark side as well.
Interrogating the margin between life and death, and deftly engaging with the paragone between science and art in contemporary society, Lovers is a work that distills the emphases of Damien Hirst’s oeuvre. Executed over a decade after the first Pill Cabinets, which date from the end of the 1990s, Hirst here replaces pills with topaz stones, arranging them meticulously in glass shelves encased in a gold-plated stainless-steel cabinet. The crystalline permanence of the stones, which unlike real pills would not dissolve once ingested, reflects the feeling of the eternal which the promise of pharmaceutical products espouses. In Hirst’s words: “Real pills decay. They rot. They're made to dissolve in your body. Plus they're full of toxic substances” (the artist cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 116). Lovers’ dense conceptual content and wry social commentary are conveyed through a composition of shimmering reflective beauty that is laced with art-historical reference and executed with a sense of dissident creative verve.
Born of the earlier Medicine Cabinets, which featured empty pharmaceutical packaging, Hirst’s Pill Cabinets debuted in 2000 in New York as part of Hirst’s celebrated show, Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings. Unlike their predecessors, these works placed great emphasis on the process and precision of their manufacture, their cool aesthetic echoing the mechanical production of pharmaceutical products. Lovers takes this one step further by replacing the pills with precious stones, conflating the mundane and the exalted and furthermore placing an emphasis on how manufactured perfection renders its contents impotent and functionless. An alterpiece to modern medicine, Lovers 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. 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).
On a formal level, there is an unabashed formal beauty in the shimmering opulent topaz juxtaposed against the glittering gold and mirrored vitrine. However, Hirst’s purpose here is not simply aesthetic, but rather to hold a mirror to our collective response and aversion to death. Where the encrusted platinum cast of Hirst’s 2007 For the Love of God functioned as a resplendent effigy of death, here the topaz stones in Lovers function as dazzlingly immaculate 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. The reflective surfaces also visually implicate the viewer in the facile struggle for survival which gives Lovers its conceptual bent, and the razor-sharp edges of the shelves imply a degree of danger inherent in the process of self-medication. 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” (the artist cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 25). Confronting the dichotomies of life and death, science and religion, the present work is a conceptually rigorous and aesthetically astounding specimen from Hirst’s provocative and wildly successful career.