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Damien Hirst – Legend and Myth

September 25, 2011 Art, Contemporary, Fine Art No Comments

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Copy + Paste from Sotheby’s Catalogue:

‘I just can’t help thinking that [medical] science is the new religion for many people … there [are] four important things in life: religion, love, art and science. At their best, they’re all just tools to help you find a path through the darkness. None of them really work that well, but they help. Of them all, science seems to be the one right now. Like religion, it provides the glimmer of hope that maybe it will be all right in the end… I want… people to think about the combination of science and religion, basically. People tend to think of them as two very separate things, one cold and clinical, the other emotional and loving and warm. I want to leap over those boundaries and give you something that looks clinical and cold but has all the religious, metaphysical connotations too’ (Quoted in Damien Hirst: New Religion, exhibition catalogue, Paul Stolper, London 2005, p.V.).

Damien Hirst’s evocation of science and religion as the guiding lights for the human condition finds eloquent expression in the majestic equine form of Legend. This monumental winged horse stands atop its plinth as an icon of Hirst’s new modern mythologizing art. Pegasus was the legendary beast that Bellerophon rode to defeat the Chimera. The Chimera was another hybrid creature, representing the ferocity found in the animal kingdom, whilst Pegasus embodied the freedom and nobility of nature. This monumental sculpture is thus rendered in pure white, a towering beacon of strength and virtue. However, Hirst’s Legend has come under the scrutiny of the scientist/vivisectionist. One flank has been surgically flayed, exposing its muscles and bare bones, showing the secrets of this mythological animal in a colourful symphony of reds and yellows creating a dramatic contrast to the untouched sanctity of the other perfect white side.

The elegant counter-part to Legend, Myth embodies the fabled Unicorn, the shimmering white horse bearing a single twisted horn, a tusk that was considered an elixir of fertility and health and a symbol of universal power. The Unicorn is one of the most potent mythological symbols in western culture. The clerics and philosophers of the middle ages endowed it with a wealth of theological properties. The common lore of the period perpetuated an allegorical account of a unicorn being hunted until stilled by the presence of a virgin, who took the head of the beast upon her lap, where it slept. The wild beast had been tempered and tamed by the purity of the maiden. This story has inspired some of the most outstanding works of European art, including the majestic millefleur tapestry Maiden with Unicorn in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The tale entered into the meta-history of the Virgin Mary, where the Unicorn became a symbol of Christ’s Passion, an elegiac symbol of his divine suffering and absolute purity. Hirst has frequently taken on the challenge of religion in his work. Indeed Myth can be situated amongst the most visually arresting of the artist’s sculptural oeuvre, including the similarly flayed Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain and Hymn in bronze, The Anatomy of an Angel in marble, and his iconic masterpiece preserved in formaldehyde, The Golden Calf.

Myth eloquently references the pseudo-sciences of the past, and our enduring fascination with the healing properties of religion and science, and for the role of Art in representing the acquisition of knowledge. One flank of the Unicorn lays bare the internal structure of the myth and our folly in the pursuit of anatomising our belief. By revealing the mortal flesh of the animal within, Hirst has cleverly inverted the purpose of such a study. The myth explored here is only deepened by the tantalising corporeality of this sculpture

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