British artist Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the contemporary art world, has positioned himself at the center of controversy again, but this time it’s not through the hawking of a diamond-encrusted platinum skull for $10 million or an attempt to pass off the most cynically presented fish carcass ever as fine art (which, quite frankly, he superbly achieved). The only criticism to be leveled at that iconic piece, the one composed of a tiger shark suspended in a formaldehyde-filled vitrine, was it’s unclever title: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” — only unclever because someone bought the rotten (and rotting) object for $8 million, proving that a death of the mind in someone living was in fact not at all an impossibility.
But back to the controversy: shit. As in, “Oh shit, there’s another one,” because Hirst as the human piñata for the so-proletariat-it’s-cute “How the hell is that art?” mob, is perpetually embroiled in some maelstrom of controversy, often more than one at a time. Because I’m not even discussing “Veritas,” his 65-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a clothesless pregnant woman … vivisected. The Edgar Degas-inspired statue was recently erected on the waterfront of Ilfracombe, England, to the seeming bewilderment of many of its residents, who all should have pointed out that it was a 65-foot-tall bronze pregnant woman version of KAWS’ Dissected Companion which was itself a low-brow vinyl toy embodiment of a page from Disney’s whimsically illustrated “The Magic of Mengele!” surgical textbook for children.
All of this was a circuitous, self indulgent (for you as well since you’re still reading) way for me to arrive to Hirst’s “In and Out of Love,” an art installation that was shown at a retrospective of his work at London’s Tate Modern. The installation was comprised of two windowless rooms full of live butterflies both hatched from pupae pinned to hanging canvases and delivered from “reputable UK butterfly houses,” because so many of the UK butterfly houses you’ve frequented are irreputable.
Of course, Hirst being Hirst and sensational articles being sensational articles, there’s a giant rub to be manufactured for manufacture. According to The Telegraph, “In and Out of Love” cost 9,000 butterflies their lives during its 23-week reign of terror. That death toll means any insect living today will cite Damien Hirst as the “Pol Pot of butterflies,” the museum-goers as his Khmer Rouge, and “In and Out of Love” as the Killing Fields. Trampled, swatted and fatally deprived, beautiful butterfly after beautiful butterfly shuffled off from their mortal coils, until a pile of Owl and Heliconius species’ wings pointed to the most brutal butterfly massacre in the history of butterfly massacres. Not since 8-year-old Tommy next door received a magnifying glass for his birthday had so many innocent winged creatures lost their lives.
In a quote taken from his website, Hirst says of the butterfly installation:
“It’s about love and realism, dreams, ideals, symbols, life and death. I worked out many possible trajectories for these things, like the way the real butterfly can destroy the ideal (birthday-card) kind of love; the symbol exists apart from the real thing. Or the butterflies still being beautiful even when dead.”
Love, Damien? Love? Butterflies do not destroy love; they are the living embodiment of love. You, sir, are the destroyer of love … is what PETA would say. In response to Damien “Slobodan Milosevic of the Animal Kingdom” Hirst, the animal rights group released a statement that read:
“Damien Hirst’s quest to be edgy is as boring as it is callous. It does not matter whether Hirst killed the animals himself or sat by while thousands of them were massacred for his own unjustifiable amusement. Butterflies are beautiful parts of nature and should be enjoyed in the wild instead of destroyed for something predictable and unimaginative.”
And so, what is the verdict, dear reader? Is this art? Do insect lives matter? Does nobody ever really suspect the butterfly? Here’s a video: