Bad boy does good: Damien Hirst and those giant fetus sculptures

The development of a baby in the womb is a miracle. And as a newly unveiled series of sculptures show, good art can portray the miracle powerfully.
Wed Oct 23, 2013 - 12:03 pm EST

Oct. 23, 2013 (Breakpoint) - Damien Hirst has a well-earned reputation as the “bad boy” of the contemporary art scene. The British artist, who has admitted to struggling with alcohol, is famous—some might say “infamous”—for art whose purpose to shock the viewer’s sensibilities.


Arguably his best-known work, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” features a shark preserved in formaldehyde inside an acrylic display case. Renoir it’s not. Another one, whose title I cannot repeat, features a rotting bull and cow and was banned by New York health officials out of fear that it might induce vomiting among viewers.

Hirst’s latest work is, in a very important sense, just as transgressive. So transgressive that art critics, many of whom praised Hirst’s earlier works, don’t know what to make of it.

The piece is on display in, of all places, Qatar, a conservative Islamic emirate on the Persian Gulf. The work, entitled “The Miraculous Journey,” consists of fourteen statues weighing a total of 216 metric tons and ranging from approximately sixteen to forty-six feet tall.

The “miraculous” part is what the statues depict: replicas of the unborn human child from conception all the way to birth.


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The artwork, which was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, took Hirst three years to complete. As he said at the dedication, “Ultimately, the journey a baby goes through before birth is bigger than anything it will experience in its human life.” He added that “I hope the sculpture will instill in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder at this extraordinary human process . . .”

I have no idea what Hirst’s views on abortion might be, but it’s difficult to imagine any work of art cutting across the grain of the “culture of death” more sharply than this one. Even the title, “The Miraculous Journey” affirms the idea that life is a gift and, as such, should be treasured.

Coming from a man whose previous work featured, as Wikipedia tells us, death as a “central theme,” this celebration of the miracle of life is especially surprising. So surprising that the New York Times just didn’t know what to make of it.

The Times went on and on, if you can believe it, about the nudity in the piece. It quoted a professor of Near Eastern art about the depiction of naked women bathing in Islamic art, as if the depiction of a naked baby, especially one in the womb, and the depiction of an adult woman were remotely comparable.

As if to belie the Times’ concerns, the chairwoman of the Museums Authority said that “To have something like this is less daring than having a lot of nudity . . . There is a verse in the Koran about the miracle of birth. It is not against our culture or our religion.”

But calling birth a “miracle” makes the New York Times nervous. Its “culture” requires denying this and reducing the miraculous to a matter of “choice.”

“The Miraculous Journey” is yet another reminder of the power of art to communicate truth. As Leland Ryken of Wheaton College has written, “a painting or piece of fiction can be as truthful to life, and to the Christian view of life, as a sermon or religious article can be.”

All of which leaves me saying something I never thought I would say: Thank you, Damien Hirst.

Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint.org. 

  damien hirst, qatar

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