With this rather long divergence from Hirst work explaining the role of mitigation in the abject, I return to Hirst’s works themselves to look at the ways that they monopolize on mitigating discourses. First of all they are deeply embedded in the scientific.
One expects to see taxidermy in a natural history or medical museum, but not so much in an art museum. However, by having works like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living replicate the common forms of these scientific investigations, the work suspends disgust by pausing death in the pursuit of science. Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks act as a protective agent, a shield against the corpse inside. Like resin-encased tarantulas, they allow us access to that which scares and offends without any fear on contamination. Even when Hirst’s works become more narrative and less antiseptic, like his formaldehyde encased calf, Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, the discourse of religion acts as a mitigating factor, enabling the dead beast and resigning him up like as a martyr, albeit it perhaps a martyr to our own hunger for factory farmed flesh. My favorite of these works is entitled, This Little Piggy*, an obvious reference to the children’s rhyme, which features a pig split in half down the middle and preserved in two separate tanks offset so that the animals internal systems are laid bare.**
While many discuss the critique of the meat industry in regards to works such as these, what I find striking is the way in which both the cleansing discourse of childhood, seen in the innocent nursery rhyme helps to lessen the blow of the dissection. Also, the fact it is a dissection, precise and well preserved, still signals the presence of scientific discourse. It’s worth noting that the scientific discourse that these works reference has at it’s heart the same origins as that of the fine art museum; the Wunder Kammen. Wunder Kammen’s were collections of curiosities, which included fine art, as well as craft items, and natural wonders brought back from trading missions from afar. These collections were supported by scientific discourse of discovery, but also religious discourses of manifest destiny, memento mori, and divine omnipresence. The collection of natural wonders not involved the cataloguing of wonders for the progress of human knowledge, but also acted as a ledger of the greatness of God, in all of his magnificent and strange creations. Hirst’s “tank” pieces all alluded to both science and religion, while creating a modern day cabinet of curiosities, which in itself is a conflation of the divine and the scientific, the artful and the systematic. These circulating discourses, as well as the very real material presence of glass and antiseptic, protect us from the sheer rejection that encountering a dead animal might cause in other situations. These mitigations allow us to be present to and contemplate our reactions to these works which still involved disgust, but disgust in such an alleviate form that we can override our knee-jerk, embodied, even evolutionary drives to get away and flee.
For more of Wunder Kammen, see Davenne, Cabinets of Wonder.
* If one ever questions the influence of contemporary art on the broader cultural sphere, one need only look at Damien Hirst’s works and the general release movie The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez. A number of the dream sequences in that film seem to directly borrow from Hirst and other contemporary artists, like the scene in which a horse is eviscerated by glass plates that then expand, allowing the audience to see it’s still functioning organs in slices like Hirst’s tanks, although his animals are dead of course.
** The title of the work with its childhood allusions is another way in which the work becomes abject, as the abject is a violation, or refusal, of laws, which place childhood on the side of life and sweetness. This juxtaposition of a cute childhood rhyme with a vivisected animal heightens the sense of wrongness or abjection. This is something Kristeva herself discusses when she talks about the sense of abjection that comes from the piles of children’s shoes at the museum at Auschwitz, that they are matter out of place in that hall of death, becoming dirty and wrong as they belong in homes and under Christmas trees.