Damien Hirst is obsessed with health. He’s obsessed with life, death, the body, science, and religion. They’ve consumed him and his work since before his days at Goldsmith’s College of Art, and have continued to do so ever since, leading him to become one of the most recognisable contemporary British artists of the last hundred years. But his fame and popular Pop-Art aesthetic may actually distract from the content of his work, themes that offer particular resonance in a climate coping with a global health crisis.
Over the years, his paintings, sculptures, installations and prints have dealt with the physical, the spiritual, and primarily, trust. 2020 for many has tested our capacity to trust in any number of things, be that our bodies, our government, each other, and the information we’re receiving. With the roll-out of the new Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, again, we’re seeing a wave of skepticism with regards to its safety, and even its intent. God knows there exist dozens of tweets about how Bill Gates and the global elite are using it as a mechanism for mind control. Perhaps now more than ever in our lifetimes, trust in science and the scientific community is at its most fragile.
But it is also evident that we need it, and badly. It is why people have simultaneously invested in a diverse range of healing practices – through spiritual communities, holistic medicine, the bulk buying of plants, or through art. For those that fundamentally believe in the necessity of medicine – especially if we are to ever see the other side of this – the pain and loss inflicted by this crisis mismanagement also needs addressing through means other than medication, and will likely require attention for years to come. Pharmaceuticals are essential, but they will only take us so far.
For Hirst, healing is part of a process, not a solution to a problem. Ultimately, we are all headed toward the same thing: death. How we deal with death, how it presents itself, under what circumstances: as he sees it, these are all gaps in our education, things we are not taught to deal with. They are things we don’t talk about, and frankly, they are the only things we know we are certain to experience, in one way or another. There are limitations to healing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.
In a world riddled with trust issues, Hirst’s work offers a framework for engaging with anxiety and thinking about the various kinds of healing we are all deeply in need of. Be it medical, spiritual, or emotional, his essays and art explore the fragility many of us are feeling as part of a process working towards stability, solid ground to stand on, and a renewed sense of hope. Interrogating what we trust, where that comes from, or why we don’t, for him stands in the way of this process – what are we missing? And where can we find it? Sitting in disquiet and discomfort, perhaps with Hirst we can find tools for processing what has undeniably been a difficult 2020.