In London, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hirst produced a series of 'cabinet' pieces in which ranges of objects were presented in the type of glass vitrine typical of scientific display in a museum or laboratory. Including such remnants as the packaging for pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals (see Tate T07187), empty drinking glasses, cows' internal organs and fish, they also evoke the 19th century gentleman's hobby of collecting specimens. Related installations utilise large glass and steel chambers which function simultaneously as spaces for containment and confinement and invoke notions of cyclical birth and death. Referring to the aesthetic of Minimalism established in the 1960s, and developed in the 1980s, Hirst's glass cases reflect the contradictions implicit in the (scientific) pursuit of knowledge. They provide an ironic commentary on the inevitable loss of life as a body is taken apart for scientific examination: sterility and death accompanying identification and preservation. He has said: 'I like ideas of trying to understand the world by taking things out of the world. You kill things to look at them.' (Quoted in Morgan, p.24.)

Forms without Life, as its title makes explicit, directly illustrates the dilemma of collection and display. The beautiful shells are available to the viewer for visual and aesthetic appreciation through removal from their natural environment, the death of the organism inhabiting them and the possible further stage of being cleaned and polished. One kind of death is necessary for another new form of life or knowledge to be gained. As in Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding 1991 (Saatchi Collection, London), which consists of a similar cabinet containing rows of fish individually cased in formaldehyde, preservation not only kills, it isolates. Just how much is gained from such a murderous investigation Hirst has left ambiguously open-ended. Showy sea shells are typically sold in exotic holiday resorts (Hirst bought these in Thailand) and could be seen as symbols of Western exploitation both of third world cultures and the planet's natural resources. Removed from their natural environment, they are beautiful and desirable to look at. But despite their elevation from the souvenir stall into the realm of high art by Hirst's appropriation of the display case as a minimalist box, the shells remain dead and inaccessible behind glass.

Further reading:
Damien Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997
Stuart Morgan, interview with Damien Hirst, 'Life and Death', Frieze, no.1, Summer, 1991, pp.22-5
Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Jay Jopling and Institute for Contemporary Arts, London 1991

Elizabeth Manchester
May 2000