From his pegging as one of the leading Young British Artists of the seismic 90s UK art scene to his consistently controversial and much-hyped exhibitions, Damien Hirst has soundly cemented his place as one of the most iconic contemporary artists around today. Of course, he’s also reputed to be the richest living artists to date – not bad for a lad who only achieved an E in art at A-level.
But that’s just Hirst: as art’s enfant terrible he has consistently welcomed controversy and ignited discussion on taboo subjects: springing straight to mind is his infamous formaldehyde pickled shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992), and Two Fucking and Two Watching (1995), a piece featuring a rotting cow and bull that was banned in New York due to fears of ‘vomiting among the visitors’.
Then there’s his fascination with pharmaceuticals, a fixation that began with his second year project at Goldsmiths, Sinner (1988), in which he constructed an MDF unit at home which he then filled with the empty packaging of his grandmother’s medication, which he had requested she left him on her death. Since then the minimalist pop art aesthetic of medicine packaging has frequently reappeared throughout Hirst’s work, highlighting an alternative side to his philosophical preoccupation with birth, death and the power of art.
Hirst’s latest exhibition, schizophrenogenesis, reignites this theme. Amongst the work on show at the Paul Stolper Gallery is The Cure, a wall of thirty silkscreen prints, each depicting a two-colour pill set against vibrant backgrounds of pop-candy colours, a series of corresponding sculptural works; fourteen hugely enlarged resin pills, each measuring thirty centimetres long, alongside sculptures of medicine bottles, pharmaceutical boxes, ampoules, syringes, a scalpel, and drug packaging that all play with concepts of scale.
Alex James Taylor: Can you describe the thought-process behind the set up of the exhibition?
Paul Stolper: Hirst came in to install over a few days and so it was his decisions that determined where all the works are sited. The first pieces to go up were Schizophrenogenesis in neon, the set of The Cure and the long shelf of 14 pills. Once these were put up, Hirst was able to group together the pills, bottles and boxes that make up the rest of the installation.
Damien Hirst ‘Deltacortril Enteric’ and ‘Chlordiazepoxide’ 2014. Courtesy the artist and Paul Stolper Gallery
AT: How did the relationship between the Paul Stolper Gallery and Damien Hirst originate?
PS: Hirst was looking to work with a publisher on a large project which came to be titled New Religion in 2004, a major installation that included prints, sculptures and painting. Hirst exhibited the entire installation at the Paul Stolper gallery in 2005 in East London, which travelled to Venice, and Moscow.
AT: Do you recognise a Warholian influence in the exhibition, finding beauty in the mundane?
PS: I think that influence is more about the pop candy colours that Warhol saw in commercial packaging that is so prevalent today in the selling of pharmaceuticals which Hirst has picked up on. There is also the silkscreen technique that Hirst employs, highlighting the duotone in each pill print which you see in Warhol’s Electric Chair prints.
AT: What do you think it is about pharmaceuticals that fascinates Hirst so much?
PS: “Pills are a brilliant little form, better than any minimalist art. They’re all designed to make you buy them… they come out of flowers, plants, things from the ground, and they make you feel good, you know, to just have a pill, to feel beauty.” – Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst’s schizophrenogenesis runs until 15th November at Paul Stolper Gallery, 31 Museum St, London WC1A 1LH