We don’t do star-rated exhibition reviews at Wallpaper*. But if we did, we might need to break Damien Hirst’s ‘Natural History’ down a bit. 

For ‘shock factor’, it might get a two; this is hardly Hirst’s formaldehyde foray. The show features one recent work, School Daze (2021), a rotating, multipart mobile of individually-pickled fish. It’s a more subtle intervention than the sliced and diced carcasses that surround it, but top marks for the pun. 

More shocking perhaps was Hirst’s recent flurry of Cherry Blossom paintings, mainly due to their distinct lack of shock factor. ‘Natural History’, spanning 30 years of Hirst’s greatest hits in preservation, is a reminder of why the YBA icon pricked our ears up in the first place. This is prime-cut Hirst: unflinching and notorious. 

Damien Hirst: ’Natural History’, installation view, 2022

We pity Cain and Abel (1994), who form the welcome party to this show: two black-and-white calves whose youthful buoyancy has been frozen in blue-tinged fluid since Blur released Parklife. Alive, but definitely not living. 

Further in, This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home (1996) is another sorry, albeit anatomically fascinating sight. You might remember the nursery rhyme, you might not remember the part where the piggy was chopped in half. 

Through saggy-eyed sharks, bowel-like sausages, flayed innards, six-limbed cows, miscellaneous fish, upside-down sheep and Hunterian Museum-esque jarred organs, we find the most startling diorama of all: The Beheading of John the Baptist (2006). It’s not the candy-coloured knives that get you. It’s not even the decapitated cow head perched on the butcher’s block or the clinical, white-tiled floor on which the rest of its body is strewn. It’s a clock that looms above the execution scene in suspended reality. Time of death: 11:53. 

Damien Hirst, The Beheading of John the Baptist, 2006 gagosian london formaldehyde review
Damien Hirst, The Beheading of John the Baptist, 2006, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, ceramic floor tiles, stainless steel, resin butcher’s block, knives, machete, chain mail glove, cow, and formaldehyde solution. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

For ‘vegan friendliness’, the show would get a one (unless of course, a no-star option is available). It’s been 31 years since Hirst first dropped jaws with his fourteen-foot, formaldehyde tank-preserved tiger shark. Though veganism was a more fringe affair in 1991, it’s an unavoidable fact of death that for Hirst’s art to live, animals have died, and many people were, and remain, pretty unhappy about it. 

Lest we forget the 2010 interview in which musician and animal-rights fanatic Morrissey told the artist Linder that Hirst’s ‘head should be kept in a bag’ for his treatment of animals. Or in 2017, when Hirst’s Venice exhibition was ambushed with manure by an animal rights group, and the many bouts of explosive disdain for his various butterfly massacres. But the use of dead animals in art was hardly invented by Hirst (one need look no further than hog-hair brushes, mashed-insect pigments or bone char paint). The difference here, one could argue, is the stark honesty. 

Damien Hirst, The Ascension, 2003 formaldehyde london Gagosian
Damien Hirst, The Ascension, 2003. Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, acrylic, monofilament, calf, and formaldehyde solution. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

For ‘timeliness’, it might get a four (and stay with me here). Admittedly, most people have seen one of these carcass-filled tanks before, or at least an image of one. But never in the history of art has London witnessed simultaneous survey shows by Damien Hirst, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois. The city air is pulsating with pungent, visceral animalism, and it’s stifling. Like it or loathe it, flayed, deformed, dissected, crucified bodies (or parts of them) seem to be de rigueur-(mortis), and Hirst’s show plays a leading role.

But why do we keep coming back for another slice? Perhaps Hirst’s formaldehyde sculptures – grotesque as they are poetic – scratch the insatiable human itch for death and mortality. Maybe it’s a comfort to cling onto something as certain as death and tax(idermy). 

A lot has changed since Hirst’s first pickle; life was simpler. Now, in a frenzy of pixel domination, immortal meta-selves, technology-powered monotony, and NFT art dropping (to new lows), maybe what we need is a bit of realism to feel alive, even if it is dead, and marinating in a tank. §

 Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian
Damien Hirst: Natural History, installation view, 2022. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

The Pursuit of Oblivion, 2004, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, stainless steel butcher’s rack and meat hooks, knives, sharpening steels, cleavers, saws, stainless steel chain, umbrella, resin hat, cloak, bird cage, resin books, resin armchair, resin walking cane, resin shoes, motorcycle helmet, sides of beef, sausages, dove and formaldehyde solution. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst, Schizophrenogenesis, 2008, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, acrylic, cows’ heads, and formaldehyde solution

Damien Hirst, Schizophrenogenesis, 2008, Glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, acrylic, cows’ heads, and formaldehyde solution. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst, School Daze, 2021, Stainless steel, acrylic, electric motor, fish, and formaldehyde solution Gagosian London

Damien Hirst, School Daze, 2021, Stainless steel, acrylic, electric motor, fish, and formaldehyde solution. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst, Shut Up and Eat Your Fucking Dinner, 1997, Steel, glass, formaldehyde, awning and meat products.

Damien Hirst, Shut Up and Eat Your Fucking Dinner, 1997, Steel, glass, formaldehyde, awning and meat products. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst, Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, 1993 Gagosian

Damien Hirst, Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded, 1993, Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, acrylic, shark, and formaldehyde solution, Triptych. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian