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The Butterfly Effect

Stuart Morgan 1997

'In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies' (1991) © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

It began with the man next door. During a two-year interval between school and art college, Damien Hirst struck up a nodding acquaintanceship with an elderly man called Mr Barnes, who could be seen wandering about the neighbourhood during the daytime and returning home every evening with objects he had collected. Then one day there was no sign of him. Time passed, but when he still failed to appear, Hirst and his friends climbed over the fence to see what had happened. They never managed to find out. Barnes himself had gone for good, but he had left an astonishing legacy: rooms packed from floor to ceiling with objects he had amassed, at some points leaving only narrow pathways through which to move. His outings had served as preliminaries to a baffling taxonomic process which should be guess at rather than analysed, the extent of its self-reference never fully perceptible. Parts of his master-work seemed to relate to other parts not only spatially but also temporally, to be negotiated in present time like a work of architecture, a condensation of the past. The age and state of the materials; the control of the passage of a real inhabitant and (possibly imaginary) visitors; a technique for remembering where things were; the idea of a work of art as the work of a lifetime – there was no doubt that Barnes’s building was meant to be regarded as a kind of monument. As such it had not one but an overlay of histories: the record of its conception, construction, use, symbolic significance, state of existence (complete or partial), not least its reception and access, restricted in this case to Barnes himself and a few uninvited guests who witnessed it before its destruction.

Art survives through its effect on others. Struggling to assimilate what he had seen, Hirst began making collages and reading about Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau project. Joseph Cornell became an influence, as for a time he placed objects against theatrical settings or arranged them in sand in the corners of rooms. But if Barnes’s flat proved to be a short-term blessing, it also became a long-term stumbling block. Everything that Barnes had touched, it seems, had been drawn into a sphere where proliferation and classification were strangely allied. Other people saw the result of losing a battle, as objects – tended, packed, sorted and placed – had gradually overwhelmed the marker, as though time and space were running out. The collages Hirst made from materials he discovered in the flat could be interpreted as response to Barnes’s sense of time as well as to mental and emotional liberation, achieved in the fact of engulfment. Sometimes this kind of freedom is achieved. At other times it seems to lapse. One squarish structure, for example, reveals something akin to a distant landscaped, framed and framed again by wooden struts. Others consist of pieces of rusted metal, soiled rag or painted wood that has seen better days, all released from their temporal co-ordinates to become elements or a more refined, formal pastime like a game (as the use of playing cards suggests) or some kind of exchange (as the fragments of handwritten letters might lead one to suspect), only to lapse into their true identify as ageing constituents of an entirety which tries but fails to ward off the effects of age. For the main assumption that underlies Hirst’s collages is that though ordering practised for its own sake can be tantamount to procrastination, time will assert itself at last. Compared with painting, collage is particularly prone to wear, of course; it’s elements have already led other lives and time will claim them sooner rather than later. As if to emphasise this, another collage repeats the motif of distant mountains, but now they have turned into a mirror on which a watch-face is attached. The same work contains a well worn shell, a puckered rubber bell, and – as if mocking the face which will form the final, round element of the composition – the words, ‘I Love You’ are written by hand on the mirror.

Neither his reading nor a preliminary year of art training equipped Hirst to appreciate Barnes’s achievement to the full. First he had to adjust to the aesthetic his art teachers were intent on instilling: a doctrine of Romantic subjectivism. Hirst responded to this way of thinking, so much so that he embraced some of its aspects once and for all. For him, colour remained an intuitive concern, for example. Nevertheless, two permanent corrections to hyper-subjectivity followed in quick succession. The first was evidence in multicoloured arrangements which seemed to have sprouted like fungus from walls and rafters, each separate unit a different colour (‘Boxes’). Whereas the collages had utilised found materials, thanks to their gloss paint these constructions looked shiny and new. Observers might have supposed that the spot paintings that succeeded them perpetuated that very habit Hirst had been struggling to avoid: the choice of colour according to emotional and aesthetic decisions. In fact, though they represented a complete capitulation to it, that surrender was modified by other factors. Equally sized spots of colour were arranged in grid formation that parodied a household paint chart. And the colours were chosen intuitively – or, rather, by a process of decision-making based on aesthetic and non-rational demands. One thousand colours had been mixed beforehand in a pseudo-systematic way: one hundred reds, one hundred blues, and so on. Having made one spot painting consisting of one hundred and fifty spots in ten vertical, fifteen horizontal rows, Hirst removed half of each spot on one side of the first, then did the same on a different side of the second painting, giving the impression that the pattern was somehow being rotated.

These initial spot paintings matter less than the decision Hirst went on to make, however: that these would be the first in an ‘endless’ series. Sizes and variations might change, the spots might be made on paper, on the wall or on canvas. Above all, they would serve as a permanent undertone in his work. One problem they broad is that of identify. Hirst decided to call a pair of spot paintings by names of people whose Christian names were identical – John John, for example, or David David – and to have identical twins stand in front of them like a visual palindrome, so that as the two components of their names melted into one, so also did the features of two people who resemble each other or two paintings with the same construction. Identify led to two other concerns: time and language, more specifically repetition and definition, in the form of titling. A zero degree of all three, time standing still, or simply being ‘marked’ – separate identity asserted but not perceived, language refusing to vary – generates paradoxes which were discernible at the very outset of the entire series, paradoxes which in turn foreshadowed that interest in pattern recognition which constituted the unstated theme of Hirst’s third mixed exhibition: ‘Gambler’. The very title of which broached the idea of play between randomness and coincidence which underlies any game of chance. Operating within defined limits of structure and colour, the ‘endless’ series of spot paintings, better described as a series which ends only with Hirst’s own death, offers physical variations on a conceptual theme, one argument would run: foreplay without resolution, line after line of suspension points building up expectations which remain unfulfilled. Another view would be that since the colours are already chosen, the series must be regarded as a single painting, the sum of every possible combination of spots. A third view would be that the cumulative effect of the spot series would resemble a self-portrait, to be assembled by means of a computer readout or even a viewer’s impression of Hirst’s most frequent choices of colour and positioning; all the more persuasive an option in view of the obsessive nature of the entire enterprise and its inbuilt resistance to ratiocination. A fourth would elaborate on Hirst’s own tendency to see them as monochromes. Yet establishing visual unification of the different hues is far from easy. Goethe once wrote that nature ‘oscillates within her prescribed limits’. Yet, he added, ‘Thus arise all the varieties and conditions of the phenomena which are presented to us in space and time.’

In Hirst’s work every oscillation has a name, however, and at this time an apparently arbitrary system of titling came into operation, when Hirst first came across a catalogue from a drug firm – Sigma Chemical Company’s ‘Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents’ – and decided to call his own works after the products listed, working alphabetically through the book, using every name in order. An arbitrary enough decision, on the face of it. In retrospect, however, it came to seem less arbitrary; things establish relationships with their names, as people do. In this period, collages, spot paintings and cabinets were being made at the same time. Crossovers between the series were obviously no accident. In 1988, the two spot paintings included in ‘Freeze’, the first of the mixed exhibitions that Hirst organised, were named after drugs. The ‘Medicine Cabinets, of which Hirst made twelve, had titles borrowed from all the songs on one Sex Pistols album, shortened to suit his needs. So ‘God Save the Queen’ became ‘god, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ turned into ‘Anarchy’, and so on: a way of finding a methodical underpinning for what would otherwise have passed for Romantic or Expressionist titles. Because the twelve constituted a set and the titles on the album had been exhausted, when two more cabinets were constructed for ‘Gambler’, he chose the names ‘Heckler’ and ‘Cosh’, after the name of a firm which manufactures machine guns, a piece of information that by no means invalidates more imaginative interpretations, like that of one over-zealous reviewer who argued that both titles referred to methods of violent attack, verbal and physical respectively. The changing fortunes of visually stable art objects is one component of their meaning. Refusal to envisage major formal alteration in the case of the spots and the cabinets is offset by play with titles, constant grouping and regrouping. Tension between artworks and titles, the use of human or inanimate metaphors to encompass them, whether they can be defined by their constituent parts or whether they are greater than the sum of their ingredients in chemical terms, whether they are mixtures of compounds – how they interrelate. All these things matter to Hirst, for whom the constant visual fluctuation in his spot paintings is accompanied by constant fluctuation in meaning. What is it? How does it endure? How can it be described? For Hirst, these questions are related, and their interrelations, considered as a changing mental construct apart from the objects themselves, make up a model of human life.

With his contribution ‘Gambler’, Hirst made exactly that. A glass chamber was divided in half. In one part pupae hatched, flies emerged and escaped through a hole to the other half, where an Insect-O-Cutor was dangling. Tiny bodies crackles as they hit the blue fluorescent tubes. And there was one other component: a cow’s head, lying on the floor, placed there to be eaten and to rot. The work was called ‘A Thousand Years.  Another, just the same except that it lacked a head, was called ‘A Hundred Years’. As with the spot paintings and the drug cabinets, a rectangular structure contains a collection of similar elements, yet this time they are mobile, and, for a while, alive. Their passage from cradle to grave, generation to destruction, is so short in human terms that calling it A Thousand Years’ demands an altogether different view of time. And making a century equal a thousand years is of a piece with the comic redundancy of the entire project. For the third time in as many years, Hirst introduces a new sequence with ‘twin’ works, bringing a potential series to a premature standstill. The idea of disintegration entered his work when a new series of drug cabinets was made, containing old, half-used packages of chemicals arranged on open shelves. The phrase, ‘Modern Medicine, the title of the second of Hirst’s group exhibitions, offered one potential interpretation of the work as a pessimistic rejoinder to Joseph Beuys’s image of the artist as shaman or ‘medicine man’, healing rifts – between man and animal, for example – that opened aeons ago. Rotting bottles and packets on shelves featured in ‘Gambler’, the sinister title suggesting of a blurring of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ medicine, chemicals used to harm or heal. And as this visual unfocus extends from equalised circles of colour to rows of labelled packages or a blur of flying black dots, life and death are not visible at once and what was an ‘oscillation’, the eye’s inability to settle, has assumed an unexpectedly literal form. But is it possible to interpret this pervasive visual tic?

When Hirst began making his spot paintings, directly after the 'Medicine Cabinets', tablets protruded halfway out of the canvas in vaguely minimalist style, as if the visual reverberation had lapsed somehow and was about to disappear altogether, below the surface. Like the child’s game of fort/da, which Freud analysed, this ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’ preoccupation could stem from a need for reassurance: the exhilaration of seeming deserted, followed by the reassurance of finding one is not alone. Could this be the significance of the ubiquitous ‘oscillating effect’ in Hirst’s work: art as a purely visual equivalent of the reassurance of a loving human relationship is assumed to bring? The title of the piece that follows offers confirmation of what might seem an eccentric reading: ‘In and Out of Love, exactly he effect of that fluctuation between the appearance and disappearance of the object of affection, brought about by the child (in this case the artist himself), and repeated throughout his career. Consider the flap of a butterfly’s wings: a momentary reduction to near-invisibility followed by a re-emergence of that double pattern, like a pair of eyes or open arms, or simply a symmetrical, twinned form, redundant but reassuring, of the kind that Hirst is accustomed to make at the outset of a new, and necessarily unfamiliar, series – in other words, at times when he needs reassurance.

After the fly pieces, Hirst devised an installation shown in the very centre of London. Walking into a space in Woodstock Street, visitors entered an extremely humid space in which butterflies would hatch and fly around, alighting on paintings or hiding inside bowls with hectically coloured, hand painted interiors. Instead of being killed, as in the fly works, the insects flapped away and settled elsewhere, like mobile camouflage, while the insipid title created a mood in total opposition to the hard-hearted spectacles that immediately preceded the butterfly period. Hirst’s fly diptych recalled the usual fate of art: the glass cases which protected, preserved and conferred value on them became sepulchres. In contrast, the butterfly installation offered a visual miracle: creatures which might have been taken for dead suddenly stirred, fluttered, sailed through the air and, as they alighted, changed the existing pattern on whatever surface they chose. Slowly but surely, the lesson of Mr Barnes had been absorbed, and with it something of the purity and playfulness of what is wrongly termed ‘naive’ art. For gradually Hirst had become a naive conceptualist, working in a stubbornly personal fashion on lines laid down by Stanley Brouwn or On Kawara (as titles like ''A Hundred Years' reveal). The mapping and spatialisation of time continues in his work, and the eccentricities that accompany it. Identify, duration and language persist as themes, interlocking now one way, now another, as Hirst weaves the kind of patterns with his present that historians do with the past. The potential scope is unlimited. What did Goethe write, almost disbelievingly? "All the varieties and conditions of the phenomena... presented to us in space and time." And all this from the sense that everything oscillated within mysterious, but established limits. How nearly his findings in his experiments with colour approximated the findings of chaos theorists of recent years. How very strange the patterns of nature’s ‘oscillation’ would turn out to be. ‘Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?’, asked Edward Lorenz in a conference paper in 1979. From strangeness comes pattern: acceptable, even familiar, only to be broken or refined as research continues. Nothing to do with Hirst and his scientific researches? It would take a brave person to argue that. Hirst too has his vision of oscillation. With his endless series, he has decided to never to abandon his own, private Butterfly Effect. 

'The Butterly Effect' was written for 'In and Out of Love', Damien Hirst's exhibition at Woodstock Street organised by Tamara Dial in 1991. It was first published in Stuart Morgan, 'What the Butler Saw', ed. Ian Hunt (Durian Publications Ltd., 1996). Copyright (c) Estate of Stuart Morgan.

Stuart Morgan — A Biography

Stuart Morgan (1948-2002) was, during the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most influential art critics working. His writing -- much of it published in Artscribe, Artforum and frieze -- was appreciated by artists and readers for its wit, insight and willingness to question assumptions. He made a lasting impact on the culture of contemporary art in Britain, and his writings and interviews have been collected in two books, What the Butler Saw (1996) and Inclinations (2006), both published by frieze.