Dead surface :: A review of End Game (2004) by Damien Hirst

If Robert Rauschenberg’s current cardboard exhibition at the Menil is fleshy (carnal) and intuitive, then Damien Hirst’s End Game at the MFAH is barren (dead) and calculated. Hirst’s piece of death is a cold medical display cabinet of glass and stainless steel (~6’ x 12’) housing on its glass shelves row after row of stainless steel tools created for the purpose of poking, prodding, and cutting human tissue. Along side of these tools and my shattered image that plays across their surfaces are the prepackaged consumable products of sampling, collecting, and cleaning. Every item is new, unused and commercially fabricated with the exception of the two dangling remnants of tool-making, language-oriented, bipedal primates, homo sapien sapiens. All soft tissue is absent, only the bones remain. These two sets of bolted together bones are suspended back to back, one large, one small—male, female(?). They call to mind how one mate will quickly follow the other into the shadow of death. The smaller of the two, the female, is marked with the anatomical muscle and tendon insertion and origin points, information required for the neat dismemberment of remains for the purpose of study and/or disposal. In spite of all the iconic meaning culturally embedded in these remnants, the skeletons are subservient to the awesome undulating forms of the medical instruments with their horrific functions. The instruments are simple machines. They require the application of a mechanical force to operate; this force is the human hand, the hand of the living—the living dissecting the dead. Hirst’s choice to encase tools of dismemberment and the human remains are a cold reminder of one’s own mortality.

The strong conceptual basis of End Game is enhanced by the material seduction that becomes perverse as I, the viewer, become the voyeur of my own death. The materiality and presentation is in the same vein as Jeff Koons’ vacuum pieces with their enshrined, mass produced ready mades. Both create spectacle, but unlike Koons, Hirst’s piece isn’t about the commodity fetish of stuff but instead about the commodity of life and its ensuing demise.

As I stood there and plundering the remaining dregs of my analysis, scrawling dedicatedly into my notebook, two gray haired couples (~75 years old) entered the space. Immediately one of the husbands laughingly and loudly exclaimed to the group, “Yup! We’ll be there soon enough.” Only after this did they step forward to consider the contents of the cabinet and the title. Hirst’s titles are important to his work, but in this case it only served the couples and myself as a brutal exclamation point. Death encroaches!

I turned to leave and to my further dismay (as illusive hopes of penned originality dissipated) what I have encoded in my notebook has already been decoded on the wall. Damn. As I read the plasticized text there, I wondered if you sent me here (Oh yes, I am that egocentric.) to see one artists journey into the questions of what it means to be human and his direct manner of articulating his observations visually and via language. Hum, a worthy artist to study.

Kathryn Kelley. 2007.


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