On October 14th, British artist Damien Hirst’s butterfly painting I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds (2006) sold for 2,2 million pounds (3,5 million dollars) at Christie’s auction in London. This may not be such a shocking figure, considering his pickled shark sold for 17 million pounds in 2008. Nonetheless, it’s a piece of art evoking quite disturbing feelings and questions of life and death – not to mention animal rights.Photo © Mark Barry
The title of Hirst’s (b. 1965) disputed piece, I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, is a quote taken out of its context from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, stated again in 1945 by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the ‘father of the atom bomb’, upon sight of the mayhem created by the first test detonation. In relation to this, ‘massacre’, ‘carnage’ and ‘blood spill’ come into mind, but when looking at the work other things reminiscent of gothic church windows and religion come into play. This discourse of life, death and religion is a common denominator to anyone familiar with Hirst’s work, therefore it’s not very surprising to find these themes here.
However, what makes one frown and think twice about the work is the fact that it consists of real butterflies and is 17 by 7 feet large – the largest of Hirst’s butterfly “paintings” to date. In his earlier butterfly works Hirst collected the insects himself and let them die by landing in wet paint, however the way that this particular piece is made is unclear. The artist has previously stated:
I think I’ve got an obsession with death, but I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can’t have one without the other. (D. Hirst & G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 21).
Hirst’s butterfly works have withstood a lot of critique and hatred, not least from animal rights groups. It is admittedly disturbing, but labeling it ‘eco-art’ may raise an even bigger question mark, as it involves taking lives for aesthetic purposes. Curious also is the way in which Christie’s explains the work: “The highly complex composition is created entirely from thousands of dead butterfly wings (…) which glisten with glorious life.”
One can easily chose to see it in another way, as in Hirst drawing attention to all the beauty in the world and how we humans continue to pollute and ignore the problems right in front of us. Seeing as Hirst is quite greengaged himself, it’s hard to imagine his motives being foul.
The work clearly plays with contrasts and as with many things in life — the beauty undercuts the horror of what we see. Sadly, it’s a buyers world, and as far as art goes, the freakier and more provocative it is – the better and more successful it is likely to become.