Damien Hirst Pharmacy 1992

Artwork details

Artist
Damien Hirst born 1965
Title
Pharmacy
Date 1992
Medium Glass, faced particleboard, painted MDF, beech, ramin, wooden dowels, aluminium, pharmaceutical packaging, desks, office
Dimensions Overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 1996
Reference
T07187
Not on display

Summary

This work is a room-sized installation representing a pharmacy. It was conceived as a site-specific installation and initially shown at the Cohen Gallery, New York, in 1992. Hirst had been using glass-fronted cabinets of the type found in a laboratory or hospital, stacked with pharmaceutical drugs as well as other objects, since 1989. In these works (but not in Pharmacy) he arranged the drugs on the shelves so that they offer a model of the body: those at the top are medicines for the head; in the middle are medications for the stomach; those at the bottom treat ailments of the feet. These works are related to his famous ‘spot’ paintings, which bear the names of pharmaceuticals as their titles. Hirst’s spot paintings and pharmaceutical works recall an early work by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) also titled Pharmacy (1914). One of Duchamp’s first ready-mades, this is a commercial print of a winter landscape signed by an unknown artist onto which Duchamp painted two small drops of colour (red and yellow) suggesting personages, which for him represented the coloured apothecary bottles generally seen in pharmacy windows at that time. T07187, like all Hirst’s smaller medicine cabinet works, also recalls the series of Pharmacies created by Joseph Cornell (1903–72) during the 1940s and 1950s. These comprise such poetic fragments as leaves, feathers, shells, papers, mineral and wood samples, coloured liquids and powders assembled in rows of glass bottles lined up on the shelves of old wooden medicine chests. Two of these dating from 1943, both Untitled (Pharmacy) (reproduced in Diane Waldman, Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams, New York 2002, pp.52–3), feature rows of identical bottles partitioned with glass shelving that runs vertically as well as horizontally, forming a grid – the structure that orders Hirst’s spot paintings and such works as Life Without You 1991 (T12749) and the Untitled print from London 1992, P77930.

In Hirst’s Pharmacy the small medicine cabinets of the earlier pieces have been expanded to cover the walls with rows of packaged drugs behind glass. Four glass apothecary bottles filled with coloured liquids stand in a row on a counter and represent the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Their traditional form is a reminder of more ancient practices of treating and healing the body. The counter fronts three desks, covered with an array of office equipment and stationery, and three chairs. Four bowls containing honeycomb sit on four footstools arranged around an electric insect-o-cutor, which hangs from the ceiling. Hirst has commented: ‘I’ve always seen medicine cabinets as bodies, but also like a cityscape or civilization, with some sort of hierarchy within it. It’s also like a contemporary museum of the Middle Ages. In a hundred years time this will look like an old apothecary. A museum of something that’s around today.’ (Quoted in Dannatt, p.59.)

Medicine and drugs are recurring themes in Hirst’s work as means of altering perception and providing a short-lived cure, ineffectual in the face of death. Here the honeycomb operates as the central metaphor: it potentially attracts flies, only to lure them on to a quick and brutal death. In a similar manner the pharmaceutical drugs with their inevitable side effects could be seen to represent a range of impermanent means for escape from sickness and pain. Pharmacy, with its clinical and authoritative atmosphere, made cheerful by the colourful apothecary bottles, connects the laboratory or hospital (the source and location of modern medicine) with the museum or gallery space. For Hirst medicine, like art, provides a belief system which is both seductive and illusory. He has commented: ‘I can’t understand why some people believe completely in medicine and not in art, without questioning either’ (quoted in Damien Hirst, p.9). By reproducing the area of a pharmacy the public is normally denied access to in a highly aestheticised context, Hirst has created a kind of temple to modern medicine, ironically centred around an agent of death (the insect-o-cutor). Offering endless rows of palliative hopes for a diseased cultural body, Hirst’s Pharmacy could be seen as a representation of the multiple range of philosophies, theories and belief systems available as possible means of structuring and redeeming a life. Like medicine, however, these attempts to think a way around death are eternally doomed to failure.

Further reading:
Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of my Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, reproduced pp.222–31.
Adrian Dannatt, interview with Damien Hirst, ‘Life’s like this, then it stops’, Flash Art no.169, March–April 1993, pp.59–63.
Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1991.

Elizabeth Manchester
May 2000
Revised May 2009

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