top of page


A showcase of Damien Hirsts' pack of formaldehyde-bound animals fighting against time

By Tiffany Lee

At the Gagosian Gallery on London’s Brittania, the first exhibition dedicated to more than twenty pieces of Damien Hirsts' notoriously preserved, bisected and flayed animals poses questions on the ramifications of passing time and the inevitability of death.

Damien Hirst: Natural History, installation view, 2022.

Following a career spanning the course of three decades, Bristol-born conceptual artist Damien Hirst’s collection of taxidermy animals, who have travelled across the globe from Naples to Hong Kong, and are finally returning home to London. With pieces dating from 1991-2021, Hirsts' work fills the Gagosian and juggles themes of mortality, the grotesque, and vulnerability. It came as no surprise that we were going to be faced with the cold and clinical arrangements of the teal-tinted once-animated animals, frozen in time. Hirst was part of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement that dominated the art and culture scene of the 90s and early 2000s. Known for their openness to subversive materials, grotesque processes, and sensational shock tactics, Hirst’s curiosity and rebellious flair seems to have subsided, fading into a clean and predictable curation. Displaying the works as an ode to death, Hirst’s ultimate desire to preserve makes it hard not to notice the layered ramifications that time has had on his work.

The exhibition first welcomes you with Cain & Abel (1994), featuring two calves suspended parallel to each other in formaldehyde-filled tanks. The title refers to the story of the two brothers Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis, concluding with the former killing the latter - a tale of death, jealousy, and divinity. Previously exhibited at Oxford University's Museum of Natural History's 'Meat the Future' exhibition, the expected and signature taste of mortality in Hirst's work provides a clear message for newcomers to the preservation parade.

Albeit a celebratory archive - an homage, in a way - of Hirst’s past works, the show does feature one new work, 2021’s School Daze. Consisting of a rotating multi-component school of individually-pickled fish positioned above our heads, reminiscent of a baby's mobile, the piece invites us to stand idly staring up, pausing to investigate the flying fish for a few seconds before wondering what's next.

Further in, traversing through an array of intestines, six-limbed cows, stationary sharks, and upside-down sheep, we find one of the main spectacles. The Beheading of John the Baptist (2006): A brutal scene and a favourite subject of many masters throughout history, such as Caravaggio's eponymous masterpiece at the start of the 17th century. For audiences familiar with Hirst’s work, the religious iconography littered across the space will come as no surprise. Continuing his fascination with the dichotomy of science vs religion, the diorama features an assortment of rainbow coloured knives, a decapitated cow’s head perched on the butcher's block, the rest of it's carcass laid against the aloof, white-tiled floor, and the most surreal element of all, a live ticking clock looming above the execution scene. Time of death: 3:09pm.

Damien Hirst, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 2006.

This show is held during a time of constant flux between the physical and digital, with Hirst’s artworks featuring creatures suspended in a perverse limbo that echoes works in other contemporary shows such as The Royal Academy’s “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast” and the works of Deborah Sengl, and Hirst’s attitudes towards the desire to isolate and protect remains relevant. Seeing the savage physicality of the guts, intestines and carcass of an animal feeds our inherently curious human desire, and in a way presents a refreshingly physical, visceral perversion of the digital. However, this show seems to be made up entirely of pickled animals. The rooms were filled with death and formaldehyde, floating for eternity. It begs the question… is this enough anymore?

Following the original debut of Hirst’s most iconic sculpture, 1991’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, people were disgusted. Compromised of a fourteen-foot tiger shark suspended eerily with jaws agape, the piece evoked visceral responses, leaving animal rights activists protesting and oligarchs thirsting for more. Some were revulsed, whilst some reveled in the honesty of his work. However, the showcase now feels lifeless, dull, and repetitive. It seems like time has had its effect on Hirsts' work.

Another example of this banality can be seen in Shut up and Eat Your Fucking Dinner (1997), a work depicting a butcher shop with an assembly of animal innards, including strings of sausages, cutlets and ham, hanging against a blue and white 60's inspired exterior. Created in the nineties, the prices of the meat presented is the most eye-catching and shocking element. I mean, when was the last time you bought a whole chicken for £1.99?

In addition to this, the dramatic suspense of the gallery feels almost parodied. The scenes of children posing and smiling in front of a bisected shark takes away the sombre tones of the works - presenting the animals in a similar way to a Frankenstein science museum. It seems that Hirsts' tanks of preserved animals have transformed from the once vulgar into mainstream, commonplace art. The most shocking takeaway from the exhibition lies in the sheer lack of shock and disgust visible among visitors.

Scenes from 'Shut up and eat your fucking dinner' (1997)

Photo taken at 'Natural History', 2022

The Ascension, 2003, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, acrylic, monofilament, calf, and formaldehyde solution.

The pursuit of Oblivion, 2004, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, stainless steel butcher's rack and meat hooks, knives, sharpening steels, cleavers, saws, stainless steel chain, umbrella, resin hat, cloak, bird cage, resin books, resin armchair, walking cane, shoes, motorcycle helmet, sides of beef, sausage, dove and formaldehyde solution.

School Daze, 2021, Stainless steel, acrylic, electric motor, fish, and formaldehyde solution.

Shut up and Eat Your Fucking Dinner, 1997, steel, glass, formaldehyde, awning, and meat products.

16 Sausages, 1993, Acrylic, monofilament, sausages and formaldehyde solution.

Love is Blind, 2008, Glass, painted MDF, beech, aluminium, acrylic fish, and formaldehyde solution.

Additional Information:

Damien Hirst, 'Natural History' is open from 10 March to July 31, 2022 at Gagosian, Britannia Street.

bottom of page