Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'Water is always death to me. I don’t know why. It wipes the slate clean. I didn’t use formaldehyde to preserve artworks for posterity, I used it to communicate an idea.' —Damien HirstThe proximity of life to death has proven to be a prevailing theme for British artist Damien Hirst throughout his career, allowing him to explore more nebulous philosophical ideas related to religion, loss, love, and the cult of the commodity. Confrontational, monumental, and philosophically engaging, Without You is a spectacular example of the artist’s deep engagement with these themes, and of his radical use of scientific materials and methods to push them to their aesthetic extremes.


    Formaldehyde and Fish Cabinets


    Ranking amongst Hirst’s first formaldehyde works, his ground-breaking fish cabinets are especially significant in the conceptual connections that they introduce across some of the artist’s most iconic and enduring series. Establishing a formal relationship to the sense of order and approximation of scientific rationalism presented across the Medicine Cabinets and the Spot Paintings, they of course also recall one of the most iconic images of contemporary art, Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Presented at Charles Saatchi’s 1991 epoch-defining Young British Artists exhibition, the image of the thirteen-foot tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde has reached well beyond the limits of the art world, capturing the rebellious spirit of this new generation of British artists working on the cusp of the 21st century.


    Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS /Artimage 2022
    Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS /Artimage 2022

    In characteristically glib fashion, Hirst described the sculpture as having ‘to do with the obsession with trying to make the dead live or the living live forever.’i Like this infamous work, Without You draws on the conceptual difficulties involved in imagining our own mortality, the formaldehyde acting not simply as a chemical agent to preserve the creatures, but as a means of trying to approach this philosophical question aesthetically. Removed from their natural habitat and placed in 91 individual formaldehyde-filled Perspex boxes, the multiple varieties of fish appear to sit suspended somewhere between life and death, arranged in such a way that they almost seem to be swimming, absurdly frozen in time.


    Tellingly, Hirst’s first fish cabinet, the 1991 diptych Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) and (Right), was also included in the Young British Artists exhibition, emphasising the foundational position held by these wall cabinets within Hirst’s oeuvre. While the lone tiger shark confronts the sense of paradox and dissonance involved in our attempts to imagine the permanence of death, there is an added poignance involved in the fish cabinet’s juxtapositions of life, movement, and the collective with sterility, suspension, and isolation.

    'They all face the same way yet they can’t make contact the way they do in the sea […] in life we’re separated by flesh and bones and you can’t really move beyond that.'
    —Damien Hirst
    Belonging to the highly personal Internal Affairs series, Isolated Elements and its sister works have been described by the artist as an exercise in ‘looking into myself, to try to work out why my body is separated from my mind or indeed if it is’, something that is clearly picked up by the title and visual format of Without You.ii Raising questions about induvial difference and conformity as well as the fragile line between life and death, Hirst borrows the visual languages of Minimalism, museum display, and scientific enquiry, using the mechanism of the 19th century display cabinet to take a wry look at the human drive to set chaos into order and to extract permanence from an otherwise fleeting existence.


    Curiosity and the Collector

    'I just can’t help thinking that 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. […] Of all of them, 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.' —Damien Hirst

    Hirst first began to incorporate scientific imagery into his work at a very early stage in his career with the simple glass-fronted cabinets that he filled with pharmacological drug packaging and other medical items during his second year at Goldsmiths in the late 1980s. The cabinet structure has remained crucial to the artist, standing sometimes analogously in for the body, and sometimes for the scientific pursuit of knowledge itself. Highly revered by Hirst, Francis Bacon frequently adopted a cage-like structure as a framing device as a means of intensifying his visceral study of human flesh and angst. Similarly the cabinet functions in the present work as a device allowing Hirst to closely examine the relationships between science and art, natural history, and mortality.


     Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, Tate Gallery, London. Image: akg-images / André Held, Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022
    Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, Tate Gallery, London. Image: akg-images / André Held, Artwork: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

    Evoking the visual display of early natural history museums and their predecessors, the Curiosity Cabinet, Without You picks up on the 19th century mania for collecting and classifying objects from the natural world. Operating as proto-museums, the earliest Curiosity Cabinets or ‘wunderkammers’ attempted to impose rational order onto a chaotic world through careful categorisation, and as such were ‘central to conceptions of knowledge and how its results were to be displayed […] so that they inhabited the same physical space and conceptual space’.iii A potent symbol of man’s hubristic pursuit of knowledge, they speak not only to a desire to collect and categorise, but to an Enlightenment faith in progress and the pursuit of rationality.


    An avid collector himself, perhaps it is no wonder that Hirst found himself drawn to the aesthetics of display that we might associate with natural history museum collections and Victorian taxidermy. Recalling the practices of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell, collecting itself seems to fascinate Hirst, the artist elaborating that ‘I’ve always collected things. When I was a kid it was rocks and minerals, which I used to display in boxes. I love how different forms of display affect what the eye sees. It’s bound up in my interest in the Victorian obsession with nature, or really the dominance of man over the natural world. Those Victorian natural history displays are so stupidly self-confident, it’s nature seen through the eyes of man, beautifully ordered according to aesthetics.’iv


    This appreciation of the cabinet as an aesthetic object in its own right finds a powerful visual antecedent in the elegant Minimalism of Donald Judd’s wall-mounted boxes, adopting a similar emphasis on seriality and presentation of clean, mathematical arrangement of forms. However, just as Without You offers a critique of rationalism’s claim to knowledge and supremacy over the natural world, we can also identify the ways in which the present work challenges the aesthetic rationalism of Minimalism, introducing an element of variety and humour to the cabinet with the variety of species and the dryly comical effect of their arrested state.


    Although it speaks poignantly to the inevitability and finitude of death, and the psychological pain of loneliness and isolation, Without You is also a celebration of life, freedom, and the pursuit of knowledge.  As the artist himself has been keen to point out: ‘I think I’ve got an obsession with death, but I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can’t have one without the other.’v


    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984, on loan to the Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Estate of Donald Judd/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2022
    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984, on loan to the Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Estate of Donald Judd/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2022

     Collector’s Digest


    •    One of the most controversial and provocative figures of contemporary art, Damien Hirst’s work has defined the YBA generation and continues to drive discussions around the role and meaning of art in the 21st century.


    •    First conceived in the early 1990s, Hirst’s formaldehyde cabinets rank amongst his most instantly recognisable and conceptually important series, with iconic examples of these works held in major institutions around the world.


    •    Combining the seriality of the Medicine Cabinets and Spot Paintings with the philosophical dimensions of the formaldehyde works, the Fish Cabinets are central to Hirst’s oeuvre. Having made their initial appearance in the artist’s first institutional exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1991, an example of these works has been included in every major survey exhibition since.


    •    Most recently Hirst has been awarded the inaugural exhibition in Gagosian Gallery’s new space in Gstaad, Switzerland. Myths, Legends, Monsters opened in February 2022.


    i Damien Hirst, quoted in Gordon Burn, ‘Is Mr Death in?’, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 2006, p. 7

    ii Damien Hirst quoted in ‘Damien Hirst & Sophie Calle’, Internal Affairs, (exh. cat.), Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1991, n.p.

    iii Brian Dillion, ‘Ugly Feelings’, Damien Hirst, London, 2012, p.23.

    iv Damien Hirst, ‘Wunderkammer’, Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector (exh. cat.), Barbican, London, 2015

    v Damien Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst, Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 21.

    • Provenance

      White Cube, London
      Private Collection, Helsinki (acquired from the above in 2009)
      Phillips, London, 8 March 2018, lot 48
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Damien Hirst

      British • 1965

      There is no other contemporary artist as maverick to the art market as Damien Hirst. Foremost among the Young British Artists (YBAs), a group of provocative artists who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in the late 1980s, Hirst ascended to stardom by making objects that shocked and appalled, and that possessed conceptual depth in both profound and prankish ways.

      Regarded as Britain's most notorious living artist, Hirst has studded human skulls in diamonds and submerged sharks, sheep and other dead animals in custom vitrines of formaldehyde. In tandem with Cheyenne Westphal, now Chairman of Phillips, Hirst controversially staged an entire exhibition directly for auction with 2008's "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," which collectively totalled £111 million ($198 million).

      Hirst remains genre-defying and creates everything from sculpture, prints, works on paper and paintings to installation and objects. Another of his most celebrated series, the 'Pill Cabinets' present rows of intricate pills, cast individually in metal, plaster and resin, in sterilized glass and steel containers; Phillips New York showed the largest of these pieces ever exhibited in the United States, The Void, 2000, in May 2017.

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Without You

glass, painted MDF, beech, acrylic, fish and formaldehyde solution
121.9 x 182.8 x 16 cm (47 7/8 x 71 7/8 x 6 1/4 in.)
Executed in 2008.

Full Cataloguing

£500,000 - 700,000 ‡♠

Sold for £627,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+ 44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022