10 September – 19 October 2003
White Cube Hoxton Square
Romance in the Age of Uncertainty was the first solo exhibition of new work by Damien Hirst in London since he exhibited Still at White Cube Duke Street, in 1995. This extensive exhibition of new sculptures and paintings collectively examined, dissected and recast the story of Jesus and the Disciples. Through these new religious works Hirst explored the uncertainty at the heart of human experience; the confusing relations between love, life and death; communion and isolation; loyalty and betrayal. And in so doing Hirst brings into play religion, art and science, layering these categories together, opening them up, in works that tell new and different stories.
Amongst the works in the exhibition were the Apostles, a series of cabinets that represent the deaths of the Disciples and the Ascension of Jesus. There are thirteen sculptures in the series, each of which is a steel and glass cabinet, with a mirrored back surface, that contains objects arranged on several glass shelves. Most of the objects are now redundant laboratory glassware: transparent flasks, bell jars, crucibles and measuring tubes. In earlier works Hirst used the cabinets to present a scientific taxonomy of a single type of object; here the singularity and sterile 'sealed-in-ness' is replaced by a complex sensuous and baroque layering. Glassware, forceps and specimen dishes are mixed together with rosaries and crosses. There are also hammers, clubs and a sword, and many of the cabinets are themselves violated with stigmata-like holes, their outer membrane cut through and stabbed, some spilling out blood-stained coils of plastic tubing-like entrails. These new works are layered, traumatised and porous.
Each cabinet is dedicated to a single Disciple, an abstract portrait of his own particular martyrdom. Since the bodies are missing, we as viewers must work backwards from the point of violent death to reconstruct a life and identity of the victim through the various traumas inflicted and through examination of the objects within the cabinets. At the base of each cabinet stands the corresponding Disciple represented by a sacrificial cow's head that has been variously skinned, divided or inverted and preserved in formaldehyde in a glass tank. It is the inescapable factual reality of the cow's heads, their incontestable presence, that seems to refuse imaginative entry, to arrest thought and throw you back on yourself. Relief comes with the tank dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus, where the cow's head appears to have disappeared, leaving only a clear tank of formaldehyde.
Hirst also exhibited a number of paintings including The Cancer Chronicles, a suite of thirteen black paintings built out of and thickly encrusted with hundreds of thousands of dead flies to create dense and unfathomable surfaces. Also exhibited were two butterfly-wing paintings, one circular and the other oval, whose kaleidoscopic splendour comes from the complex mandala-like patterns of the intensely coloured wings.
Charity was installed in the park in Hoxton Square. The sculpture subverts the classical practice of elevating a noble subject by selecting the most dejected and wretched image of a disabled girl with her leg in a splint, scuffed clothes and her charity box broken into. Charity is based on a 1950s British charity donation box and yet, on this epic scale, it registers as both monumental and vulnerable, standing as a massive reproach, as if its size corresponds to the scale of our refusal to acknowledge a failure in charity. Unarguably about lived experience, it pushes into the social realm, speaking simply about injustice and the erosion of values.