Summary

Monument to the Living and the Dead is a very large painting composed of two equal-sized square canvases mounted in abutting white frames. Each canvas is covered with a layer of monotone household gloss paint, in which exotic butterfly carcasses are embedded. The square on the left is painted white; that on the right is black. The oppositional relationship between the colours black and white has a special significance for Hirst. He has explained:

 

I’ve always been interested in the split between mind and body, the one and the other, the difference between art and life, life and death, like black and white … I think of life and death as black and white. If life is white, black is death. Trying to explain or imagine death is like trying to imagine black by only using white. There’s no way you can get to it, it’s like the same thing but opposite. This is life and death isn’t. I’m not happy with any of those descriptions.
(Quoted in Adrian Dannatt, ‘Damien Hirst: Life’s like this, then it stops’, Flash Art, no.169, March–April 1993, p.63.)

 

Hirst’s first use of exotic butterflies to make art dates from his first solo exhibition in 1991. Entitled In and Out of Love, the exhibition was spread over two floors of an empty shop premises in London’s West End, setting up a binary scene. Upstairs, white paintings with the pupae of Malaysian butterflies glued to them were hung around the space. Here the butterflies hatched before briefly fluttering around the room, feeding on nectar from pot plants lined up on shelves attached to the bottoms of the canvases, and eventually dying. Downstairs, Hirst’s first butterfly paintings – seven foot square canvases covered in brightly coloured monochrome household gloss paint in which dead butterflies appear trapped – were juxtaposed with ashtrays containing cigarette butts and a three foot white cube with circular holes in it, suggesting a possible source for the butterflies. Hirst has commented that, ‘it was all based on the body. I was saying “…I want it to be bigger than you are, bigger than I am”, so it was like seven feet, because six feet was too small.’ (Quoted in Damien Hirst, p.77.) Monument to the Living and the Dead is based on these same dimensions – each canvas is seven foot square – as is a very similar work made in 2004, The Agony and the Ecstacy (reproduced Damien Hirst, pp.80–1).

 

Although the butterflies on the two canvases that make up Monument to the Living and the Dead appear to have been scattered in a random fashion, in fact they have been arranged in patterns which exactly replicate each other, down to the size and colour of each butterfly. This is not immediately visible, because the canvases are hung in opposing orientations – the panel on the right constituting an inverted, black version of that on the left – resulting in a sense of inexact mirroring. Inversion and rotation have been formal tactics in Hirst’s work since 1993 when he created three replicas of his 1991 sculptural installation The Acquired Inability to Escape (T12748) entitled The Acquired Inability to Escape Inverted, The Acquired Inability to Escape Divided and The Acquired Inability to Escape Inverted and Divided (reproduced Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, pp.59, 61–2 and 66–7), according to the processes they were subjected to.

 

The dualistic vision presented in the installation In and Out of Love and in these more recent paintings extends beyond the use of colour and organisation on the canvas to the insects themselves. Hirst’s single-panel butterfly paintings created since the early 1990s have titles that refer to love either directly or obliquely: I’m in Love 1994–5, She Loves You 1997, Girl 1997, Another Girl 1997 and Beautiful Feeling 1997 (reproduced Damien Hirst, pp.79, 91–3 and 95). The equation of the butterfly with love and life contrasts with Hirst’s use of flies. In 1990 the artist created one of his most famous and groundbreaking works, A Thousand Years 1990 (reproduced Damien Hirst, pp.70–1), as an expression of repetitive and pointless mortality. In the two adjoining chambers of a glass-walled vitrine, a rotting cow’s head hosted a colony of flies that feed, breed and potentially died on the suspended Insect-O-Cutor that hung over the dead head. Hirst’s first fly painting, Untitled Black Monochrome (Without Emotion) (Miuccia Prada, Milan) made in 1997, was the precursor to a series of canvases encrusted with dead flies and titled with the names of disasters and diseases, all suggesting if not actually referring to death. Who’s Afraid of the Dark? 2002 (T12750) is an example of this. Hirst has said: ‘I think I’ve got an obsession with death, but I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can’t have one without the other.’ (Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p.21.)

 

Further reading:

Eduardo Cicelyn, Mario Codognato and Mirta D’Argenzio, Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples 2004, pp.86–94.

 

Elizabeth Manchester

October 2009