Life Without You is an arrangement of sea-shells on a white melanine-topped table. Seventy-three exotic shells are organised in fifteen rows of five with five exceptions: a row of three, two rows of four and two rows of six. The shells vary widely in size, ranging from tiny winkle-type shells the size of a fingernail, to the large white clam and brown tonna shells closer to the size of a hand. A mixture of univalve and bivalve types, the shells are shiny as though they have been polished or varnished, heightening the deep pinks, oranges and browns that enrich their various shades of white. The intense glossiness of their surfaces suggests that they, like the shells presented in a related work Hirst made in the same year, Forms Without Life (T06657), were purchased in Thailand as tourist souvenirs. Their ornate organic forms contrast with the plain style of the mass-produced institutional table they lie on.
Having worked principally with collage using scavenged objects, inspired by the work of German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) and American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–72) during the mid 1980s, in 1988–9 Hirst turned towards the minimalist aesthetic and the quasi-scientific method of display which typify his work of the following two decades. Wall-hung glass-fronted cabinets of the kind found in laboratories or museums appear repeatedly in his work, housing such objects as fish individually boxed in formaldehyde (Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding 1991), drinking glasses (I Can See Clearly Now 1991), cigarette butts (Dead Ends, Died Out, Examined 1993), boxes of pharmaceuticals (Pharmacy 1992, T07187), replicas of pills (Standing Alone on the Precipice and Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror 1999–2000), animal skeletons (Something Solid Beneath the Surface of Several Things Wise and Wonderful 2000) and large decorative exotic shells (T06657). The titles of the earlier of these works refer self-reflexively to the processes of visual investigation central to scientific and museological display. Many of the objects in them are arranged spaced at regular intervals, as though supported by an invisible grid, a method of organization Hirst first used in a Spot Painting in 1988 (a still on-going series consisting of different coloured but same-sized spots arranged in grids or other types of regular patterns on white canvases). The arrangement of the shells in Life Without You presages a print Hirst made the following year for the portfolio London published by Charles Booth-Clibborn. Untitled (P77930) is a grid of photographic images of thirty rocks the artist bought on the King’s Road set against a pink background, its layout derived from an illustration in a geography text book the artist saw at school. Hirst has commented that ‘the grid structure allows no emotion’, elaborating that ‘I sometimes feel that I’m trying to be a machine, I’m sure everybody does and even from this negative structure the end result is always a celebration, no matter how I feel’ (quoted in Damien Hirst, p.11).
While Forms Without Life evokes the (sometimes cruel) processes of collection and display necessary to both science and art – enduring themes in Hirst’s oeuvre – Life Without You refers to another of the artist’s favourite topics of the early 1990s – love. His first solo exhibition in London featured the installation In and Out of Love 1991, in which hundreds of exotic Malaysian butterflies hatched from pupae attached to the surfaces of several white canvases, hung on the wall of a vacant shop. In the centre of the room, four bowls of sugared water stood on the corners of a table very similar to that used in Life Without You, and in another work made the same year, The Acquired Inability to Escape (T12748). Where In And Out of Love presented the life cycle of the butterflies as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of love, Life Without You proposes a layout of shells from exotic places as the desolate emptiness of lost love. Hirst has said that he likes shells ‘because they once contained life’; this aspect of them is paramount for him, as the title of Forms Without Life testifies. However, although he is presenting a landscape of dead husks, they have already been transformed, through varnishing, into a range of attractive consumable objects, leading to the suggestion, in Life Without You, that the abandoned subject may find consolation elsewhere. The grid in this work is compromised by its variations and exceptions, perhaps allowing some hope despite the bleakness of the implied end. In comparison to works made by Schwitters using found pebbles, a feather and shell, such as Symphony for a Poet 1940 (reproduced Kurt Schwitters: Catalogue Raisonné 1937–1948, Hannover 2006, p.206 fig.2617), its collage of humble objects suggesting melancholy and contemplation, Hirst’s table arrangement appears upbeat, clean and colourful, if a little sterile. The aesthetics and tactics of advertising have become central characteristics of Hirst’s work: Life Without You anticipates his later use of them to reinterpret traditionally poetic subjects (love, loss, life, death) in a new language of contemporary art that fuses minimalism, pop and the cult of the commodity.
Damien Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, reproduced p.197.
Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1991.