This week it’s been my pleasure to work with Roehampton University Christian Union. I’ve been speaking each lunchtime, considering the identity and claims of Jesus from the point of view of different celebrities. Today I spoke on Jesus and Damien Hirst: Laughing at life and death?
Damien Hirst was born in Bristol in 1965 and he studied at Goldsmiths College. In 1989, he curated an exhibition called Freeze, which was a big deal for him, and for British art in general. What he and a group of friends did was to ignore the art establishment and the ways you’d normally grow your reputation as an artist, and they took matters into their own hands. That group were labelled the Young British Artists, and it’s a term which still clings to Damien Hirst, even though he’s now in his 40s. He was awarded the Turner Prize in 1995. (I’ll say more about the sparkly skull later).
I’ll confess now, I’m not in any way an academic; I don’t even have an art degree. But I am a fan. I’m a fan because of the shock value of Hirst’s work – it’s the kind of work that sticks in your mind for a long time after you see it in the gallery. And I’m a fan because of the questions he asks. Although he’s got a reputation as being a bit of a joker, actually he deals with an aspect of reality that all of us have in common.
In the background of all of Hirst’s work is the idea of mortality and death. It sort of looms there, sometimes really obvious (like a skull covered in diamonds), and sometimes less obviously. But it’s always there. And that’s where a lot of his shock value comes from – we’re shocked by his choices of materials and subject matter, but I think mostly we’re shocked because he deals with death frankly, and even brutally. It feels kind of wrong and uncomfortable for me to be talking about death at lunchtime in the Union bar, doesn’t it? But Hirst doesn’t just talk about it – he hits you in the face with the reality of death, and then kicks away everything that you made hold onto for support. Hopefully you’ll see what I mean as we go…
The Phyisical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992)
This is probably one of the pieces that Hirst is best known for – the 14-foot Tiger Shark in a tank of formaldehyde. It’s an iconic piece of work – if you ask practically anyone about contemporary art, chances are they’ll mention this. This is a piece which literally brings us face-to-face with death, in a way that we normally try to avoid. The shark is dead, but it could easily be alive. It still has a mouthful of sharp teeth that could take your leg off. You’d never normally get so close to a tiger shark and survive, would you. In fact, Hirst specifically designed the tank so there’s enough room inside for the shark and you. And this is at the heart of a lot of Hirst’s work. You’re brought face to face with the idea of death, and with your own mortality.
A Thousand Years (1990)
Although the last piece was probably one he’s best known for, this is the one that really kicked off his career when Charles Saatchi bought it. It’s two connected glass boxes. One contains a cow’s head, and the other contains a giant die with a one on every side, and an insectocutor. And buzzing around inside are loads of flies. Eggs, maggots, buzzing flies and dead flies. The whole thing contains the remains of thousands of lives lived inside this box. Again, the reality of life and death is unavoidable. Death actually happens while you’re watching, as every now and again the insectocutor crackles and a fly falls to the ground. There’s something about the inevitability of death here too – the idea that death is natural, and that things have to die so that other things can live. The die with every side the same gives an impression of chance, but the conclusion is ievitable.
And I think there’s a hint here of Hirst’s attitude towards God – the insectocutor hangs sort of God-like over the scene. Occasionally a fly is captivated by it, and wanders in, only to die anyway. Death is still inevitable.
But Hirst doesn’t just expose us to the reality of death – lots of his work is about taking apart and exposing the different ways we try to ignore the reality of death. And the two he focuses on are faith and science.
Away from the Flock (1994)
What does the title make you think of? Sheep, obviously, but it also has a religious connotation, doesn’t it? Does it make you think of smiley people going to church on a Sunday morning and nodding politely as the vicar tells them what to do? Maybe the connotations are even more sinister than that? The idea of sheep and shepherds comes up a lot in the Bible, but I think it’s generally used pretty negatively, isn’t it? Sheep are generally thought of as quite stupid and docile.
But this little lamb is away from the flock, and that isn’t a happy place to be if you’re a lamb. This one definitely doesn’t look very happy. There’s comfort and security in joining the rest of the flock, where you don’t think too much and you don’t worry too much.
He had a whole show a few years ago called Beyond Belief which was full work containing religious themes and images. And lots of it was on a similar theme. Like Marx said, religion is the opiate of the people. Only for Hirst, it’s one of the ways that we numb our senses to the inevitability of death.
Basically, this is what the title suggests – it’s a mock-up of a pharmacy, with a few additions. As you go into the room, you go in from behind the counter, which is a bit weird – normally you go up to the counter and a more knowledgeable person hands you the drugs you need. Hirst basically sees science as an alternative believe system, with its own temples, its own sacraments, and its own priests to administer them. And Pharmacy helps to get that idea across. And then in the middle of it all, there’s another insectocutor – even here, in this temple to health and life, there’s a constant reminder of death.
Hirst is fascinated by drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. This is one of Hirst’s Pharmaceuticals series, otherwise known as his spot paintings, because that’s what they are. (Paintings of spots). There’s a potentially infinite array of possible combinations of these coloured spots, and each one is randomly named from a reference manual of legal and illegal substances. Hirsts point, I think, is that the pharmaceutical industry is just as baffling to most of us. Doctors prescribe drugs and pharmacists give them out with the promise that they’ll extend our lives, but really we have no idea. We just blindly put our trust in doctors and drugs. And just like religion, we hold on to hope in the face of the inevitability of death.
The Last Supper (1999)
In this series of paintings, Hirst brings together his attacks on religion and science. I don’t know if you can see it, but there are thirteen paintings made to look like drug packaging. But the “drugs” are things like “Salad tablets,” “sandwich capsules” and “chicken.” And the title, the last supper, makes reference to the last meal of Jesus, and to Holy Communion. This is what keeps us alive – we eat and we drink. But we trust science and we trust religion to help us to cheat death. I think he’s both highlighting the mundane and basic things that keep us alive, but at the same time he’s poking fun at the might and power of both religion and science.
For the Love of God (2007)
And here’s the picture we started with. This is a replica of a human skull, cast in platinum and encrusted with diamands. It went on sale for £50million. It hit the headlines as a typical Damien Hirst stunt, but it also does what so much of Hirsts work is about. It’s a reminder of the reality of death, but it’s also a monument to the way we try to gloss over it. We try to escape the grim reality of our mortality, maybe not with diamonds, but what about make up and surgery and clothes and reputation. The title apparently came from Hirst’s mother, who said, “For the love of God, what are you going to do next?!” But I think it also hints that the question of whether there’s a God, and whether he loves us or not, always looms when we’re faced with the reality of death and whether there’s life after this one ends.
So Hirst attacks science and religion in equal measure. He sees both of them as elaborate systems we put our faith in to avoid the subject of death. And he basically dismantles what he sees as false hope.
But you don’t have to look at Hirst’s work for very long before you realise that he doesn’t actually offer anything in their place. In the place of false hope, he doesn’t have any real hope to offer us.
It’s interesting to hear what he says about his actual views on life and death. Things like: “…Whenever I look at the question of how to live, the answer’s always staring me in the face. I’m already doing it.” Life’s just something you get on with. You just have to live it. Don’t worry about what happens next. In fact, he’s pretty honest about his lack of answers. He’s said: “I sometimes feel that I have nothing to say and I want to communicate this.”
How does that feel? As we’re brought face-to-face with our mortality, is that enough. Just do what you’re doing. Carry on living until you have to stop. Behind the shock, behind the stunts, even behind the seriousness of Hirst’s questions, there’s just hopelessness.
Of course, we might just live in a cold, directionless, hopeless world – if we do, then all there is to do is to keep on living and make the best of it before your time runs out. But what if there is real hope?
Each day the Christian Union here have been inviting people to examine the life of Jesus by looking at Luke’s biography of Jesus, taken from the Bible. And if you do examine Jesus’ life yourself, you soon start to see that he offers (or, at least claims to offer) real hope in the face of death.
In chapter 8 you can read about the time when Jesus met a man called Jairus. Jairus is a local religious leader, but he comes and throws himself at Jesus’ feet because his 12year old daughter is sick. In fact she’s dying. It’s a big deal for this guy to go to Jesus, but he’s desperate.
So Jesus goes with him, but on the way he’s delayed when he stops to heal another desperately sick woman. By the time he’s finished, one of Jairus’s servants runs up to them and says, “Your daughter is dead, don’t bother the teacher any more.”
But Jesus replies, “don’t be afraid; just believe and she will be healed.” Sorry Jesus, didn’t you hear what he said. She’s dead. You can’t heal someone from death! This is a huge claim for him to make, isn’t it? He’s asking a lot, isn’t he, asking Jairus to believe that he can heal his daughter?
When they get to the house, there’s a huge commotion outside – the funeral traditions were in full swing, and the crowd of mourners had turned up. Jesus tells them to stop wailing because she isn’t dead – she’s just asleep. And they laugh at him. They know a dead body when they see one. When someone dies today, they’re covered up and taken away quickly. But these people would’ve been all too familiar with what death looked like. So they laugh – she’s definitely dead.
But Jesus’ words aren’t a misdiagnosis. He’s talking about what death means to him. He goes into the room, takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up… and she does! Jesus is able to bring this dead girl back to life! To Jesus, death is no more final than going to sleep.
This points forward to another resurrection – it points to Jesus’ own resurrection. The one who can bring others back to life rose from the dead himself. I talked yesterday about how Jesus died to pay for the way we’ve rejected God so that we can know God. Jesus died, but three days later he came back to life, and he appeared to hundreds of witnesses over the following weeks.
His resurrection showed that his death had achieved what he said it would achieve – it can put things right between us and God. But more than that, he defeated death. Thanks to Jesus, we can spend forever with God. Jesus offers to hope in the face of death – he can do that, because he’s been there. But more than that he offers life. Life as it’s meant to be lived, knowing that we’re loved and accepted by the God who made us, and enjoying life with him forever.
And it’s important to realise that we aren’t talking about the unthinking kind of religion that numbs our senses with false hope. We’re talking about trusting the one who really can offer life because he went through death and came out the other side.
This is the last of our lunch time talks this week, so I want to urge you one more time to think about this more. Look into the claims of Jesus, written down in Luke. Decide for yourself whether it’s true, and whether this Jesus can be trusted. This isn’t just about Jesus making your life a bit more comfortable, like some kind of spiritual air conditioning. Hirst is absolutely right to highlight the fact of our own mortality. But where Hirst runs out of answers, Jesus has something to say. Jesus offers life – you need to decide if it’s an offer you’re going to accept.