Damien Hirst is known as the most celebrated (and perhaps most notorious) of the ‘Young British Artists’ or YBAs. Many of the YBAs, including Hirst, studied at Goldsmiths College, London in the late 1980s, and while he was still a student there, Hirst curated the exhibition Freeze. This is now often seen as the starting point for this loose grouping of British artists and a new phase in how British art was seen both in the UK and internationally. He was awarded the Turner Prize in 1995. Away from the Flock, made in 1994, is a sculpture comprising a sheep suspended in formaldehyde in a vitrine. The title conjures religious Christian associations, - “to leave the flock” is to leave behind the protection of the church, and it can be seen in a tradition of British historic art works. In pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts 1852, (‘Strayed Sheep’)the sheep are depicted straying perilously close to the cliff edge - a clear reference to religious decay. Hirst himself says about the title:
“Away from the Flock, a flock of sheep. When a sheep gets lost from all the other sheep. Then I suppose that it has those religious connotations … being an outsider, not being connected to something. That was a title that came right at the very end. I don’t know where that title came from … Away from the Flock in a way is like: it is dead, so it is away from the living as well in that kind of way, the flock of living things. All those things, I never really look for a meaning, it is just if it feels right, gives a lot of the right kinds of meaning … And Christ is often represented as a sheep in art.”
Away from the Flock is part of a group of sculptures presenting animals in vitrines, collectively titled Natural History. Hirst began the series in 1991 with one of his most famous works, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living - a tiger shark in a formaldehyde-filled tank. Hirst said that with the Natural History he:
“just wanted to do a zoo that worked … because I hate the zoo, and I just thought it would be great to do a zoo of dead animals, instead of having living animals pacing about in misery … I never thought of … as violent. I always thought of them as sad. There is a kind of tragedy with all those pieces.”
Away from the Flock is currently on display in Room 27 at Tate Britain. It forms part of a collection of international contemporary art called ARTIST ROOMS, created through one of the largest gifts of art ever made to museums in Britain. The gift was made by Anthony d’Offay in 2008, with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund and the Scottish and British Governments. ARTIST ROOMS is jointly owned and managed by National Galleries of Scotland and Tate on behalf of the nation.