Damien Hirst

The Acquired Inability to Escape


Not on display

Damien Hirst born 1965
Glass, steel, silicone rubber, Formica, fibreboard, chair, ashtray, lighter and cigarettes
Object: 2134 × 3048 × 2134 mm
Presented by the artist 2007


The Acquired Inability to Escape is a sculptural installation comprising an office table and chair enclosed in a vitrine or cell. Supported by heavy steel frames held in place by large bolts, the cell’s thick glass walls invite the viewer’s gaze while emphasizing the sealed condition of the space inside. The cell has two chambers, divided by a wall of glass, which is itself divided into two sections separated by a 45mm gap that allows the passage of air. The larger chamber is just big enough to contain the long rectangular desk and chair; the smaller is narrow and empty. Lying on the white laminate surface of the table, a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes, a white Bic lighter, and a glass ashtray containing cigarette butts and ash suggest the presence of an invisible and anonymous occupant. In contradiction to this, the black office chair, of the sort that rotates and is height adjustable, is pulled up close to the table in order to fit into the claustrophobic space, leaving no room at all for a human body.

The steel-framed vitrine of The Acquired Inability to Escape is a signature structure for Hirst, who has cited the painter Francis Bacon (1909–92), as an early influence (Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, pp.68–9). Such paintings of Bacon’s as Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963 (T00604) feature cage-like lines around the human figures on which the images centre. At the same time, the heavy industrial aesthetic of the vitrines references the sculptural forms of such Minimalists as Donald Judd (1928–94) and Carl André (born 1935) – but more specifically echoes the pavilion structures of Dan Graham (born 1942) or the Condensation Cube series 1963–5 by Hans Haacke (born 1936). Hirst’s earliest vitrine – a pair of interlinked glass cells hosting a colony of flies living in a rotting cow’s head and dying on an Insect-O-Cutor, entitled A Thousand Years 1990 (reproduced Hirst pp.28–33) – combines the pure clean lines of classic Minimalist sculpture with the uncomfortably eviscerated flesh of a Bacon portrait. Many of Hirst’s subsequent works, including Mother and Child Divided 1993 (T12751), utilise a similar visual language.

The Acquired Inability to Escape belongs to a group of cells made during the 1990s collectively known as Internal Affairs, all of which contain combinations of such everyday objects as tools, various types of equipment, pieces of furniture and clothing, arranged in mises-en-scène that evoke an absent human presence. Hirst derived the title Internal Affairs from the 1990 film (directed by Mike Figgis and starring Richard Gere) in which a police department sets up an independent body to look into their own affairs; he has explained: ‘I figured I could use that to look into myself, to work out or try to work out why my body is separated from my mind or if indeed it is’ (quoted in Damien Hirst, 1991, p.31). Hirst’s use of vitrines or cells to contain and present objects recalls the glass and plexiglass cases protecting and elevating ordinary consumer objects to the status of high art in works made by American Pop artist Jeff Koons (born 1955) during the 1980s (see T06991 and AR00077). However, where Koons fetishises such objects as vacuum cleaners and basket balls, Hirst expresses more metaphysical concerns. He has explained that The Acquired Inability to Escape originated with the title, which came from a mis-translation, by Swiss curator Ulrich Loock, of the title of a sculpture by American artist Bruce Nauman (born 1941) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer) 1988 (Burn and Hirst, p.27). Nauman derived his title from a scientific journal and his sculpture parodies a laboratory experiment with a plexiglass maze for rats, above which recorded video projections equate frenzied drumming by a teenage boy with the frustration of a trapped rat. In T12748, Hirst’s institutional furniture and claustrophobic clear-walled cell evoke a space for the controlled surveillance of humans; his title follows a skewed logic similar to that of Nauman’s.

Many of Hirst’s air-filled cells, as in A Thousand Years, Sometimes I Avoid People 1991 (reproduced Hirst, pp.44–5), The Asthmatic Escaped 1992 (reproduced Hirst, pp.42–3) and The Acquired Inability to Escape, involve spaces that lead to other spaces, suggesting the possibility of movement. Hirst has commented:

I like escape formally, as an idea. There’s a religious element to The Acquired Inability to Escape ... A spiritual, not physical escape, if you decide to choose it ... I really love glass, a substance which is very solid, is dangerous but transparent. That idea of being able to see everything but not able to touch, solid but invisible. The slits in the glass are very important to the works, you need some sort of access ... The slits are for the imagined element to get out, but not in a literal, physical way ... I have dreams about spaces like my work, some uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia ... I think of ... the ... cigarette lighter as signifying some sort of God, but it’s just energy. It doesn’t have a choice, it doesn’t choose when things die ... I don’t think it’s fate. It’s just a buzzing thing that is always there. With The Acquired Inability to Escape it’s very much a real scene. But I also thought hard about the ashtray being a sort of graveyard, a death ... The whole smoking thing is like a mini life cycle. For me the cigarette can stand for life, the packet with its possible cigarettes stands for birth, the lighter can signify God which gives life to the whole situation, the ashtray represents death.

(Quoted in Adrian Dannatt, interview with Damien Hirst: ‘Life’s like this, then it stops’, Flash Art, no.169, March–April 1993, pp.59–63, pp.61–2.)

Cigarettes and smoking have featured repeatedly in Hirst’s works, as a series of stubs individually isolated and displayed on seventeen rows of narrow shelves in a glass-fronted cabinet in Dead Ends, Died Out, Examined 1993 (private collection), or heaped in a stinking mass of butts, ash and other smokers’ detritus in an eight foot wide white ashtray called Party Time 1995 (Denver Art Museum). Made for his solo exhibition entitled No Sense of Absolute Corruption at Gagosian Gallery, New York in 1996, Party Time embodies the artist’s sense of the unacknowledged harm caused by cigarettes: ‘Smoking may do more harm than heroin, although they both end in death. Legal drugs are far more frightening than the illegal kind. If you’re not breaking the law, it’s harder to know where the boundaries are.’ (Quoted in No Sense of Absolute Corruption, p.10.)

The notion of a hopeless cycle of entrapment evoked by the title words The Acquired Inability to Escape is confirmed by the total enclosure of the glass case, despite the possibility for movement between its two chambers. Hirst originally intended to use the case for a work involving butterflies (Burn and Hirst, p.27). An installation he created the same year, entitled In and Out of Love, featured hundreds of exotic butterflies hatching from pupae attached to the surfaces of white canvases and nourished by plants in pots, only to fall on the floor and die as their short lives expired. Where In And Out of Love presented the life cycle of the butterflies as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of love, and A Thousand Years offers the continual death and reproduction of flies as a metaphor for human existence, The Acquired Inability to Escape equates life with smoking – a brief burst of pleasure leading inevitably to death, which Hirst has referred to as ‘the absolute corruption of life’ (quoted in No Sense of Absolute Corruption, p.11). He has said: ‘I want a glimpse of an idea of what it’s like to die ... Cigarettes are such clinical forms. They are like pills. They have a purity before you smoke them. They’re expensive, dangerous, from the point when you light one to when you stub it out, it’s death.’ (Hirst, p.67.)

In 1993 Hirst created three exact replicas of T12748 entitled The Acquired Inability to Escape Inverted, The Acquired Inability to Escape Divided and The Acquired Inability to Escape Inverted and Divided (reproduced Hirst pp.59, 61–2 and 66–7) according to the processes they were subjected to. At the same time he created a lithographic print entitled The Acquired Inability to Escape, Divided derived from a photograph of Tate’s sculpture. Speaking of these works, Hirst has commented: ‘I like the violence of inanimate objects. I’m interested in the idea of surrogate humans. The back of this office chair is shaped like a human spine. Male and female internalised. It’s divided right down the middle by a pane of glass. I’m interested in the fear glass produces because it is invisible and can cut you up.’ (Hirst, p.63.)

Further reading:
Damien Hirst, I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, pp.58–63, reproduced p.62.
Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Third International Istanbul Biennial with the British Council, London 1992, [pp.4 and 7], reproduced [pp.3–4].
Damien Hirst, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1991, pp.5–6 and 31, reproduced p.25.

Elizabeth Manchester
April/May 2009

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Display caption

Hirst’s work deals with dilemmas of human existence, including the fragility of life and society’s reluctance to confront death. An office table and chair are enclosed in a steel-framed glass vitrine, or cell. On the table are a packet of cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray. According to Hirst, cigarettes relate to the cyclical nature of life, the cigarette representing life and the ashtray death. The inevitability of death is also evoked by the entrapment suggested by the title, and confirmed by the enclosed glass cell.

Gallery label, October 2013

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