Utopia Damien Hirst
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Utopia is a series by Damien Hirst published as a set of nine mixed media prints depicting some of his most enduring subjects like medical pills, cigarette butts and diamonds. The prints in the series are depicted in the style of Hirst’s cabinet works like The Void (2000), Memories Of/Moments With You (2008) and Purgatory (2008). The three motifs used through the series each hold unique symbolism for Hirst.
Upon first impression the prints in the Utopia series are sterile in their aesthetic, but like many of Hirst’s works, they bring profound questions of the human condition to the fore. Disrupting any binary discussion of life and death through the ambivalent symbol of the medical pill, the cigarette butt and diamonds, Hirst brings sickness, health, addiction and rehabilitation into dialogue with one another in the series. The first seven prints show medical pills on display in a cabinet. For Hirst, the display of pills represents a state of mind and the way that the contemporary individual has the ability to control feelings in body and mind through modern medicine.
The seventh print in Utopia, Hell, shows a cropped image of Hirst’s installation Dead Ends, Died Out, Examined from 1993 that displayed a series of stubs in a glass-fronted cabinet. The motif of cigarettes and smoking have featured repeatedly throughout Hirst’s artistic oeuvre as a symbol of the unacknowledged harm that they cause to the body. Of this Hirst has said, “Smoking may do more harm than heroin, although they both end in death. Legal drugs are far more frightening than the illegal kind. If you’re not breaking the law, it’s harder to know where the boundaries are.”
For the final print in Utopia, Gold Tears, diamonds feature as a symbol of glorious eternity. Diamonds have featured in one of Hirst’s most enigmatic works, For The Love Of God from 2007 that is a sculpture of a skull entirely covered in diamonds. For Hirst, diamonds are the ultimate expression of positivity and perfection in the face of death. Gold Tears is indicative of this sentiment, notably in its title, making clear the ambiguity between eternal beauty and the melancholic realisation of loss inherent to eternity.
Why is the Utopia series so important?
The Utopia series is important in its representation of Hirst’s fascination with the aestheticization of modern medicine. Explaining his interest Hirst has said: “People have confidence in medicine. I noticed they were looking at shiny colours and bright shapes and nice white coats and cleanliness and they were going right - this is going to be my saviour, except they weren’t reading the side-effects. There seems to be a lot of trickery going on. I think art is a hell of a lot better for you than medicine, in the long run. You don’t get a long list of side-effects – or maybe you do.”
Throughout Hirst’s artistic career he has used medical and pill iconography to question how ‘art’ and ‘medicine’ are defined in contemporary culture. Making a direct comparison between the two, which at first seems unusual, Hirst in Utopia makes clear the way in which both art and medicine are constructed systems that people choose to believe in. While an individuals’ position can change as a drug remains the same, so too is art’s value dependent on what viewers and institutions are willing to praise it with.
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