Who’s Afraid of the Dark? is a rectangular canvas coated with a combination of flies and resin. The canvas was primed with black acrylic primer before the dead houseflies and clear resin mixture was poured onto it. This method of application resulted in an uneven surface with different levels and a variation in colour caused by the different fly parts (red, brown, black and white). The painting’s overall colour is a rich brown-black. The resin mixture increases the natural glossiness of the flies, with the result that the surface coating has a sticky appearance reminiscent of tar or toffee.
Hirst made his first fly painting, Untitled Black Monochrome (Without Emotion), in 1997. At this point, he had not yet perfected the technique of mixing flies with resin, and the painting smelled so bad that the Italian designer Miuccia Prada who had bought it could not keep it in her house. Hirst did not create another fly painting until 2002, when he made Who’s Afraid of the Dark?. The following year, he titled a series of rectangular fly paintings with the names of diseases and disasters – Aids, Typhoid, Genocide and Holocaust (reproduced in Cicelyn, Codognato and D’Argenzio, pp.86–7) – before developing the theme with the circular Black Sun 2004 (reproduced in Gregor Muir and Clarrie Wallis, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2004, pp.8–9) and the diamond-shaped Infanticide 2006 (White Cube, London). Hirst has claimed that it was seeing the paintstick drawings of Richard Serra (born 1939) that encouraged him to return to the fly paintings in 2002 (Cicelyn, Codognato and D’Argenzio, pp.86 and 94). Serra’s paintstick drawings, begun in the late 1980s, feature large monochrome black squares that developed in the second half of the 1990s to thickly textured black circles, known as Rounds. However where Serra’s drawings, true to the minimalist tradition to which his sculpture belongs, refer only to their own formal properties, Hirst’s use of flies is viscerally and emotively charged. After the title of his first fly painting – which makes explicit the relationship between the minimalist structure and the affective content – he abandoned the reference to form and celebrated the emotionally-loaded title. For him, flies are metaphors for human beings: ‘if you stand back far enough you think people are just like flies, like the cycle of a fly is like your own life’ (quoted in Cicelyn, Codognato and D’Argenzio, p.94). He has used the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in his famous text Leviathan (1651) as a reference for his fly paintings: ‘No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ (Quoted in Cicelyn, Codognato and D’Argenzio, p.94.) Hobbes’s words describe the fate of man in a world without government, in a condition which he calls the ‘state of nature’, the darker side of which flies appropriately represent.
Flies initially featured in one of Hirst’s most famous and groundbreaking works, A Thousand Years 1990, 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. The year after this work was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, where the painter Francis Bacon (1909–92) admired it, Hirst created his first solo exhibition using the pupae of exotic butterflies. Entitled In and Out of Love, the exhibition centred on a room hung with blank canvases from which Malaysian butterflies hatched before briefly fluttering around the room, feeding on pot plants and eventually dying. Hirst created his first butterfly paintings for this event using household gloss paint in which the isolated butterflies appear trapped. In contrast to the canvases encrusted with flies, the butterfly paintings, made using brightly coloured paint to offset the brilliantly shimmering wings, 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 in Cicelyn, Codognato and D’Argenzio, pp.79, 91–3 and 95).
Hirst has compared the relationship between life and death to that between the colours white and black (Adrian Dannatt, ‘Damien Hirst: Life’s like this, then it stops’, Flash Art, no.169, March–April 1993, p.63). Heaven Above, Hell Below 2003 (White Cube, London), a rectangular canvas half covered with an encrustation of white pills, the other half covered in flies, embodies this dualistic vision. Continuing this, in 2007, as a companion piece to his platinum and diamond covered skull entitled For the Love of God, Hirst created twenty-five versions of a human skull coated in flies and resin entitled The Fear of Death (White Cube, London). His butterfly painting, Monument to the Living and the Dead 2006 (AR00045), elaborates this theme with exotic butterflies immersed in household gloss paint on two adjoining panels, one white and one black.
Sarah Thornton, ‘In and out of love with Damien Hirst’, The Art Newspaper, issue 195 (October 2008), http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=16269
accessed 16 April 2009.
Eduardo Cicelyn, Mario Codognato and Mirta D’Argenzio, Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples 2004, pp.86–94.