The concept of the ‘objective correlative’, was first developed by T.S. Eliot:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

– T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose (Harmondsworth 1965), p. 102.

In general in Art, formal innovations don’t just occur for their own sake but because the artist has something new to say which requires these formal innovation for it to be communicated.

Arguably, this could be said of the 1997 installation pieces of Damien Hirst during the YBA’s SENSATIONS R.A. exhibition; constructing an object (using unusual and original materials) which will be the objective correlative of certain thoughts and emotions, of certain felt ideas.

Thus Hirst’s shark piece works as the ‘objective correlative’ of death in at least four ways:

  1. it is an actual dead shark;
  2. the shark is a powerful cultural signifier of the fear and threat of death;
  3. the curvature in the glass of the tank containing the shark reinforces point 2 by making the shark appear to move threateningly in the direction of the viewer; and
  4. the title of the work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, works in tension with the piece itself and with the taboo on ‘death’ in our culture.

Hirst’s use of real dead animals is an example of this.
The one object serves as an objective correlative for the fact, fear, threat and taboo of death.

I think, it forces a face to face confrontation with the brute fact of death upon a blasé modern audience which has superabundant images of death while its reality becomes ever more removed and hidden.

Short of exhibiting an actual dissected human corpse this was about as far as Hirst could go. Though Gunter von Haagen did eventually go further with his public televised autopsies.

In A Thousand Years (with its cow’s head, breeding maggots, flies and insect-o-cutor) Hirst displayed a work that is even more transgressive in its materials – not only dead flesh but living creatures that are killed before one’s eyes – and which incorporates a new element, smell (or rather stench!).

Here is represented not just death but a whole cycle of life and death, a mini-ecosystem complete with breeding, feeding and human intervention.

If it is a spectacle which evokes disgust and nausea, then that too is part of its statement. It asks us to examine our responses.

Hirst’s Away from the Flock is a white lamb with black face and feet suspended in a white steel and glass tank. It serves as objective correlative for rather different ideas and emotions.
Titles usually play an important role with Hirst. The work itself interacts with its title to represent and evoke separation, isolation, loneliness and abandonment, especially as these might pertain to a child. As such it generates an acute pathos.

Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding works with a related theme but to different emotional effect.

It consists of a large glass cabinet containing six shelves and on each shelf is placed a row of six or seven perspex cases each containing a suspended fish, all ‘swimming’ head to tail.

Here the artwork presents an embodiment of individuals as part of a conformist collective yet all isolated and hermetically sealed from one another (a ‘series’ not a ‘fixed group’ in the language of Sartre). Of course it might be objected, à la Lukács, that this is a profoundly false view of life.

I would agree in a full analysis, but it is also the case that this is an important element of human experience in this alienated society and that here Hirst has succeeded in giving powerful visual expression to this experience. The construction, it should be said, is composed in terms of its ordering of forms and colours, possessing some of the visual qualities of a Mondrian or Klee. Emotionally what it induces is not pathos or sympathy but a cold-blooded chill.

Hirst’s  work Mother and Child Divided was not in the 1997 Sensations show but I want to comment on it because I think it is Hirst’s most important work and because it brings together a number of the themes from the other works in that show. It consists of a bisected cow and a bisected calf.

Each half of the cow is placed in its own glass tank and the tanks are adjacent to one another but with enough space to walk between the tanks and observe close up the insides of the cow.
The same is done with the halves of the calf but the two calf halves are placed several yards away from the cow. Of all Hirst’s pieces this is the one that seems to have made the biggest impact on the public consciousness and this in itself testifies to the power of its concept.

However, what is most impressive about it is the way in which it functions as objective correlative for a range of different almost conflicting ideas and emotions.

  1. First there is the confrontation with death and dead flesh.
  2. Then there is the ‘shock’ of the violence of the bisection (shock like the shock of Goya’s  etchings of Napoleonic mutilation of peasants, not the Chapmans’ crude facsimile in fibre-glass) and disgust and distaste at the exposure of the innards.
    But this works in tension with the knowledge that this is how we treat animals and this is what we eat as food. One does not need to be an animal rights supporter or vegetarian to feel the force of this, just as one does not need to be a pacifist to respond to Wilfred Owen: Hirst is merely insisting we face facts.
  3. Finally the title (again) and the placing of the cow/mother and calf/child evokes the pathos, despair and separation anxiety of Away from the Flock and Isolated Elements Swimming.

Mother and Child Divided has the integration of thought and feeling and the combination of complexity with visual and emotional power that is characteristic of major art.

Significant art no matter how ‘new’ or ‘original’, always turns out to be the next step in an ongoing tradition. Nevertheless Hirst, on examination, is seen to be the point of confluence of a number of artistic streams. Most immediately there is the influence of Francis Bacon in the themes of framed and caged flesh (and also a distant echo of Rembrandt’s great painting of a beef carcass, The Slaughter House).

In the use of ready made materials, in the making of art out of apparent anti-art moves, in the mix of playfulness and high seriousness, he is clearly an heir of Marcel Duchamp.The use of the glass case also looks back to Duchamp (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass) and the vitrines of Joseph Beuys.
The white steel boxes expand the form pioneered by Sol LeWitt and the minimalists in the 1960s. 
And in the self conscious deployment of hype there is the unmistakable legacy of Warhol.

It is an art cliché that; reproductions cannot compare with the original works.
Often there is an element of myth involved here for the extent to which this is true varies greatly from artist to artist and work to work.
For example;  you can get a better idea of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from good reproductions than you can from the floor of the chapel. Gauguin, Miró and Mondrian reproduce excellently.
(Worth noting that works of art which became exceptionally well known – like the Mona Lisa, The Hay Wain, Monet’s Water Lilies, Munch’s The Scream, etc. – are often despised for this reason, but usually are powerful and important works in their own right.)

Van Gogh (because of the texture of the paint) and Pollock (because of the texture and the importance of the size) much less well.

With most paintings and some sculpture you get ‘a pretty good idea’ from quality modern reproductions.

This is not the case with much of Hirst’s work. The curvature in the glass in the shark piece and its visual effects do not appear in photographs.

The same is true of the flying and dying flies in A Thousand Years, not to speak of the smell, and you have actually to walk through the bisected cow and calf in Mother and Child Divided to experience its full effect.

In short, Hirst had to be seen first hand.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is a different debate but it is a fact which must be taken into account in discussing his merits.

 

I also wrote about Objective Correlative here: https://discordion.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/objective-correlative/

and here:

https://discordion.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/from-ebbw-vale-to-the-muslim-veil-a-review-of-david-garners-work-by-john-molyneux-senior-lecturer-in-historical-and-theoretical-studies-in-the-school-of-art-design-and-media-portsmouth-university/

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