Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “My interest in medicine and these kinds of instruments is that they’re kind of hope and fear mixed within then because you kind of look at them and they give you hope because if you need an operation or a tumour removed to live […] But within that, from cutting you open there’s the risk that you might die or not recover or not come out from the anaesthetic so the whole thing of life and death is within these instruments and I love them for that reason.”
    —Damien Hirst

    An early and important example of Damien Hirst’s Instrument Cabinets, created at a pivotal moment in the Young British Artist’s career, Fear brings together key concepts and themes that continue to preoccupy the artist today. Executed on a human scale, the steel framed glass cabinet brings into sharp focus Hirst’s unwavering interest in mortality, the frailty of the human body, and the faith that we invest in the tools and promise of modern medicine. It is this paradox that underpins Hirst’s entire artistic project – while we know, and fear, our mortality, we also refuse to accept its permanence; or, in the artist’s own words, ‘I am going to die and I want to live forever. I can’t escape that fact and I can’t let go of that desire.’


    Conceived in 1994, the year after Hirst was first nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize and the year before he actually won it, Fear comes from a pivotal moment in the young Hirst’s rapidly maturing practice, and in the broader contexts of contemporary British art at the turn of the century. Alongside sister works Still and Doubt now held in the prestigious collections of The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston respectively, Fear stands in a close familial relationship to Hirst’s foundational Medicine Cabinets which he first embarked on in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths. Borrowing titles from the definitive late 70s punk album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Hirst’s 1989 degree show presentation of thirteen Medicine Cabinets set the tone for the rebellious spirit that would come to define the art and personalities associated with the burgeoning YBA movement.

    Damien Hirst at the No Sense of Absolute Corruption exhibition, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1996. Artwork: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023


    Clean and precise in its presentation, Fear features rows of meticulously arranged surgical equipment, the cold, impersonal materiality of their sleek, stainless-steel surfaces visually referencing the simple geometries and seriality typically associated with Minimalism. Speaking about the broader series of Medicine Cabinets to which the present work is related, Hirst made this connection more directly, explaining: ‘I like the way that you’ve got all these individual elements inside a cabinet related to organs inside a body. I like the kind of Koons consumerist feel to it. And then a lot of the boxes of actual medicines are all very minimal and could be taken directly from minimalism, in the way that minimalism inspires confidence.’i Poignantly underscored by Hirst’s use of the medicine packets that his grandmother left behind after her death in these earliest cabinets however, the corporeal messiness of our own bodies is never far from these works, undercutting the more emotionally detached or Minimalist arrangement of its constituent parts.


    As with his foundational Medicine Cabinets, the steel frame stands in directly for the body here, its fundamental fragility emphasised by the glass panels that encase it, but that also leave is contents poignantly exposed and vulnerable. Removing the corporeal messiness of the body, it is still powerfully evoked in Fear, the clinical arrangement of sterile, surgical instruments including kidney bowls, speculums, needle holders, and surgical scissors all highly charged with our knowledge of their functionality as tools to violently open the body. In its particularly evocative title, Hirst’s vision of the cabinet as ‘a kind of human, like with an abdomen and a chest and guts’ is especially pronounced, especially when considered in light of master of body horror cinema David Cronenberg’s 1988 film Dead Ringers, which Hirst has explicitly referenced in relation to the series.


    David Cronenberg, Dead Ringers, 1988


    Hirst’s fascination for the interwoven relationships between art, science, and faith have important art historical precedents in the long-held fascination with the human body, its anatomy, and dissection, most famously recorded in the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci and in 17th century ‘anatomy lesson’ paintings. Significantly, in 2013 Fear was included in the Kunstmuseum de Haag presentation of The Anatomy Lesson: From Rembrandt to Hirst, where it was exhibited alongside all ten surviving anatomy lesson paintings produced in the Netherlands during this Enlightenment period, most notably Rembrandt’s masterwork of the Dutch Golden Age, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaas Tulp.


    A gory spectacle, dissections were opened to public viewings once a year, taking place in theatres that still lend their name to the more clinical spaces of hospital operating rooms today. Commissioned by the Surgeons Guild for display in their meeting room, in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaas Tulp the young Rembrandt radically altered the conventions of the genre. Set with dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, the mis en scène depicts the titular doctor exposing the musculature of the dissection subject’s arm to a group of fascinated onlookers. Drawing on Christ-like iconography in the artist’s presentation of the corpse, the painting crystalises the profound shift taking place across 17th century Europe as Enlightenment principles related to the pursuit of science, rationality, and the so-called triumph of reason challenged religion’s hitherto unwavering dominance as a framework for explaining the world.  Like Rembrandt, in Fear Hirst draws on our compelling desire to make the unknown visible, the drive to demystify death and the deep anxieties provoked by an awareness of our own mortality. Playing on the densely woven web of fears and fascinations that has always characterised our relationship to medicine and the surgeon’s trade, the Instruments Cabinets also function in this respect like religious reliquaries, playing on our capacity for hope and belief, even in the face of impersonal and inevitable death.


    Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicoleas Tulp, 1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague


    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.

    • One of the first Instruments Cabinets that Hirst started working on in 1994, Fear is closely connected to the artist’s earliest Medicine Cabinets, which undoubtably rank amongst his most immediately recognisable and conceptually important series.  

    • Two sister works, Still and Doubt, are held in the permanent collections of The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston respectively. A later, larger-scaled work The Fragile Truth also forms part of the esteemed Pinault Collection in Paris.



    i Damien Hirst, quoted in Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2002, p. 25.

    • Provenance

      White Cube, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      The Hague, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Anatomy Lesson - From Rembrandt to Damien Hirst, 28 September 2015 – 5 January 2014, pp. 114-115, 141 (illustrated, p. 114)

    • 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.

      View More Works



stamped with the artist’s stamp ‘HIRST’ on some of the surgical instruments
glass, stainless steel, steel, nickel, brass, rubber, medical and surgical equipment
180 x 92.5 x 36 cm (70 7/8 x 36 3/8 x 14 1/8 in.)
Executed in 1994.

Full Cataloguing

£300,000 - 400,000 ‡♠

Sold for £349,250

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023