Damien Hirst



Not on display

Damien Hirst born 1965
Glass, faced particleboard, painted MDF, beech, ramin, wooden dowels, aluminium, pharmaceutical packaging, desks, office chairs, foot stools, apothecary bottles, coloured water, insect-o-cutor, medical text books, stationery, bowls, resin, honey and honeycomb
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased 1996


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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Technique and condition

A room installation consisting of: an assemblage of wooden cabinets with shelves filled with empty glass, plastic and cardboard medication packaging; desks and chairs with telephones and stationery; an electric insect-o-cutor hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room; four kick stools with four porcelain bowls containing honeycomb pieces filled with resin simulating honey and; four large apothecary glass bottles filled with coloured liquids.

There are twenty-two wooden cabinets; three have fixed closed doors, nineteen have sliding glass doors. On average, there are ten removable shelves per cabinet and two fixed ones; they are filled with thousands of medication boxes and bottles. As with the wooden desks, the surface of the cabinets is finished with white melamine.

The cabinets and desks were fabricated for the Tate Gallery display of 1999. The cabinets and desks are reassembled for display. The insect-o-cutor is attached to the ceiling with two metal chains using an aluminium pole, itself suspended by four wire cables. The coloured liquids in the glass bottles are food colourings and need to be replaced by fresh solutions at intervals during display as they tend to discolour and smell bad. The bottles are cleaned and disinfected before pouring fresh liquid in them.

Some medication packaging had been crushed or broken due to previous packing conditions. During the installation of the work in 1999, some boxes were consolidated.

Michèle Lepage
May 2000

Film and audio

  • Listen

    Damien Hirst: Pharmacy – excerpt 1

    Excerpt 1 from Damien Hirst’s conversation with writer Gordon Burn about Pharmacy. The interview took place in the Lamb and …

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