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.
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