"I started trying to find out what all the drugs were. In the end, coming from that background of colour arranging, I can't resist doing it in terms of colour. Everything is done in terms of colour and what it looks like." (the artist cited in Exhibition Catalogue, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Damien Hirst: The Agony and the Ecstasy, 2004-05, p. 106)
Continuing the grand tradition of the history of art from Vivaldi to Poussin and Monet to Twombly, Damien Hirst's Lullaby Spring takes on that most ever present of allegorical themes, the Four Seasons. Executed in 2002, the present work is one from a series of four unique stainless steel cabinets. While each cabinet shares the same formal structure of glass sliding doors, mirrored backboard and stainless steel casing, each is differentiated by the assortment of pills that are lined up along the razor sharp shelves with the geometric precision of scientific experiment. Individually cast in bronze and intricately hand painted, the unique combination of life-size pills in each cabinet designates the work's title: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. While in Lullaby Winter the pills are predominantly off-white in accordance with the austere winter months, in Lullaby Spring Hirst presents a life-giving, polychrome array of myriad brightly coloured tablets, capsules and lozenges in an allegorical celebration of renewed life worthy of Botticelli's Primavera. Standing before the pristine, clinical cabinet, the beholder is mesmerised in a kaleidoscopic display of complex colour harmonies as the thousands of pills reflect in the gleaming mirror behind, vying against the retina and seemingly multiplying in the process. In this intricate matrix of colour, patterns start to emerge which replicate the complexity of the DNA strands that are our source of life.
Evoking the natural cycle of the passing seasons, Lullaby Spring reminds us of the constancy of nature's rebirth that has continued unabated for thousands of years. As sure as winter will come, so our days on this earth are numbered, ordained by a grand scheme that is beyond our ken or control. Yet in Lullaby Spring, we are presented with a monument to mankind's attempt to break this cycle of life and death. Filled with the optimism and life-giving quality implied by the title, this array of palliatives and remedies is a testament to the enormity of the accomplishment of modern science in blunting the ravages of disease and prolonging life.
An altarpiece to modern medicine, Lullaby Spring enshrines the fundamental tenets of Damien Hirst's entire oeuvre by interrogating the common ground between the traditionally distinct and antithetical faculties of science and art. Fascinated by the life sciences -pharmacology in particular- many of Hirst's breakthrough works from the Medicine Cabinets to the Pharmaceutical Paintings leverage the authority and credibility of science to shock the viewer into directly confronting the fundamentals of existence: the hairline divide between life and death.
In a deification of medicine, Hirst taps into our blind credence in the restorative powers of these chemically engineered life-givers. In the process, he highlights the usurpation of traditional spiritual faith by modern faith in drugs. Just as our forefathers in bygone centuries used art for the evocation of saintliness, populating chapels and altarpieces with paintings inspired by biblical scenes to engender an atmosphere conducive to religious fervour, so here Hirst presents an artistic shrine to the new religion of science. In the vacuum left by the decline of organised religion, Hirst presents us with a new pantheon of saints for our adulation, each individually named and endowed with its own unique healing power. Like the shamans of old, doctors and pharmacists are perceived to possess the death-defying power of alchemy and Hirst's work seeks to question our excessive trust in the capacity of drugs to extend life. As Hirst says, "Legal drugs are much more frightening than the illegal kind." (Hirst interviewed by Stuart Morgan in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Damien Hirst: No sense of Absolute Corruption, 1996, p. 10) Like the traditional motif of the memento mori, the pills become a constant reminder of our own frailty and mortality.
On a purely formal level, there is an unabashed beauty, too, in the candy-coloured pharmaceuticals housed behind the elegant, minimalist vitrine with its striking formal presentation and aesthetic presence. Whereas the Medicine Cabinets presented rows of empty pharmaceutical packaging, appropriated like tins of Campbell's Soup and arranged with the strict aesthetic unity of Donald Judd's progressions, here the contents of the packages themselves are on view, engendering an even tighter and uncluttered aesthetic order in the Koons-like glass vitrine. Compositionally arranged according to colour with the same precision employed in the Pharmaceutical 'Spot' Paintings, the pills which inspired the spots now stand in for the spots themselves in an artistic process which, like the seasons, has come full circle. Explaining his infatuation with colour, Hirst says: "I believe all painting and art should be uplifting for the viewer... I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz". (Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of my Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 246).
Ever since the very beginning of his career, Hirst has expressed an interest in the theory of collection and display. At a formative age he experienced the home of his neighbour, Mr. Barnes, who would return each day with found objects and arrange them hierarchically with meticulous precision in his home, according to a system unfathomable to anyone but him. In the context of his early work, much inspired by Kurt Schwitters' Dadaist montages, Lullaby Spring takes on the appearance of a latter day wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet, in which all of these pills with mystical qualities assume a rigorous formal order. Like the coloured spots in the Pharmaceutical Paintings, the pills are arranged according to a system which simultaneously creates and disrupts harmony, serving as a metaphor for the futility of the compulsive human desire to organise, classify and control the things we fear most in our bid to evade mortality. Instead, the various tablets are a visual analogue to the human body, reflecting the intelligent chaos of biological design. As the artist explains: "I've always really loved this idea of art, maybe, you know, curing people. And I have this kind of obsession with the body. I like the way that you've got all these individual elements inside a cabinet related to organs inside a body." (Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 25.)
The fact that the pills themselves are bronze casts, placebos for the drugs themselves, adds a further layer of meaning. Simultaneously elegant and threatening, each one intricately hand painted in careful mimesis, they are synthetic - or rather artistic -
simulacra for the real thing which, as Hirst says, "Real pills decay. They Rot. They're made to dissolve in your body. Plus they're full of toxic substances". (Damien Hirst in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, London 2001, p. 116) Immortalised for eternity in bronze, these pills take on an even greater potency and powerful, alluring beauty. Lullaby Spring is a masterpiece which shows Hirst at the height of his creative powers as a colourist and formalist tackling the intrinsic frailty and vulnerability of life and the constant presence of death which imbues his very best work.
Stainless steel and glass cabinet with painted cast pills
182.9 by 274.3 by 10.2cm. 72 by 108 by 4in.
White Cube, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner