Damien Hirst: Utopia
Damien Hirst has the power to turn the most common things into his own. From dots to butterflies to pills, Hirst’s obsessions have become iconic symbols of his work. Medicine and the almost-spiritual relationship humans have to it has been explored by Hirst across multiple series. His pill sculptures and paintings confront the idea head-on while posing other questions about society and how people interact with drugs.
Hirst has a self-confessed obsession with the human body. He claims his work on pharmaceuticals stems from the desire to make people have the same belief in art and its curative powers as they do in modern medicine. He makes the argument that if it is culturally acceptable for medicine cabinets to be works of art, and those cabinets are filled with medicines that heal, then art is therefore capable of healing.
Hirst examines the aesthetics of the industry, saying, “Pills are a brilliant little form, better than any minimalist art. They’re all designed to make you buy them.” In his Schizophrenogenesis series, popular prescriptions are cast as oversized resin sculptures to highlight their pastel palette and stylish design. By turning each tablet and capsule into a work of art, he uncovers how desirability is formulated by the pharmaceutical industry. Hirst describes that to have a pill is “to feel beauty.” His sculptures show how medicine’s outward appearance can be internalized as physical perfection for the patient.
“Day by Day” is one of Hirst’s pieces that captures pharmaceuticals’ feigned promise of order. Pills are shown in a clean, hygienic setting, labeled numerically by day. The sculpture represents a committed belief to medication people have, like an oath that is reiterated each day. However, upon closer inspection, the shelves display more of a “disordered order.” There’s no clear pattern or consistency in how the pills are paired and distributed, alluding to pseudo properties of the medication.
Hirst uses pills in his work to challenge how “art” and “medicine” is defined. In both cases, it seems to boil down to what people choose to believe. Drugs lie on a constructed spectrum of what is legal and socially acceptable. Their position can fluctuate while the drug itself stays the same. In a similar way, “art” is defined by what viewers and institutions are willing to credit it with. Hirst created a medicine cabinet that is accepted as “high art” and continues to be sold as such. The value of a piece is not intrinsic to what it is, rather, what it means to its audience. In this way, he proves that our relationship to medicine can be as personal and subjective as art, and the spiritual-like worship that is attached to it becomes more clear.