“They all face the same way yet they can’t make contact the way they do in the sea … in life we’re separated by flesh and bones and you can’t really move beyond that.”
‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left)’ is one of the first examples of Hirst preserving creatures in formaldehyde. Originally shown at The Cornerhouse, Manchester, in 1991, it was later included in ‘Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection’ at the Royal Academy, London, in 1997. The piece is one of a pair; the fish in the other work, ‘Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Right)’ (1991), face the opposite direction. The two works were united for the first time in their exhibition history at Tate Modern, London’s ‘Damien Hirst’ retrospective (2012).
The 38 varieties of fish, sourced by Hirst from Billingsgate market and fixed into Perspex boxes filled with formaldehyde, seem perpetually – and absurdly – frozen. The chemical, which the artist explains is employed as much to communicate an idea as to preserve, acts aesthetically to maintain an illusion of life in death. On seeing the work, Hirst’s mother, Mary Brennan recalls: "When I saw the fish on the wall I'd know idea what he was doing, and all I could see was all these fish swimming in the same direction as we do in life and I felt very sad about it. Not about his piece but about what it said to me. I'm not sure he meant it to say that but that's what it said to me, that we're all conforming, and that's not necessarily a good thing.”
The work can be viewed analogously to the arrangement within each of the spot paintings. Using the ninteenth century mechanism of the display cabinet, Hirst uses minimalism and scientific order to create a sense of permanence pitched against the impermanence of life.
Both 'Isolated Elements' works belong in Hirst's early series 'Internal Affairs'. Many of the works in the series were exhibited in Hirst’s first solo show in a public gallery – also called ‘Internal Affairs’ – at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1991. Describing the series as a means of, ‘looking into myself, to try to work out why my body is separated from my mind or if indeed it is’, it contains some of Hirst’s most personal works. Unlike most of his other series, ‘Internal Affairs’ contains works made in a variety of mediums. As the artist explained in 1991: “I thought the ideas involved in ‘Internal Affairs’ needed to be realized in more than one sculpture. It had to be approached from different angles.” The series includes the vitrine ‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’ (1991), and the ping-pong ball piece, ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’ (1991).
 Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’ (Booth-Clibborn Editions; Reduced edition, 2005), 9