Art of the Day

1 Jun

Damien Hirst, ‘Pharmacy’ 1992

Pharmacy. by Damien Hirst (born 1965). Glass, faced particleboard, painted MDF, beech, ramin, wooden dowels, aluminium, pharmaceutical packaging, desks, office, 1992.

Notes from tate.org.uk:

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 inPharmacy) 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, bothUntitled (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.

My comments:

I have criticized Hirst quite definitively on this blog for the fact that he uses assistants to make his artworks and contributes only his ideas to the work but not his personal labor, even in situations where it is not at all necessary to use assistants (in some cases it would be physically impossible for one person to create an artwork by himself, in which case I’m ok with that artist then using assistants to make it). Because of Hirst’s employment of assistants, I don’t consider him an artist but instead a designer, an inventor. Nevertheless, the works that are produced in his factory are indeed artworks, and I have to admit that his ideas, even if they are just ideas, are quite powerful and compelling. I find his analogy between the “myth” of medicine and the “myth” of art to be quite interesting. People often dismiss art, but in some ways medicine requires as much faith and even suspension of rationality as art does.

But the thing that makes Hirst’s art feel so cold to me is that it can really only be discussed on a conceptual level. One can’t discuss the artmaking process behind it as he or she would in regards to a painting, because when it came to actually constructing Pharmacy, I am pretty sure that everything was merely manufactured and arranged, but not actually created and synthesized. Of course, this is the way that almost all Conceptual Art is. But there is something about it that, to me, is so devoid of emotions that it can’t connect with people on a deep human level that is one of the most wonderful and important aspects of art, in my opinion. So while Conceptual Art may make us think and question our beliefs, which is great, it most likely will not make us feel. And there needn’t be a tradeoff between these two results when it comes to art; the early Modernists proved that.

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