British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, he of the sheep or sharks displayed in tanks filled with formaldehyde, is certainly no stranger to controversy. The type of public outcry normally associated with Hirst, such as the infamous “Sensation” exhibition, often causes those of us with a more traditional set of sensibilities to recoil in horror. However with his latest effort, Hirst may find himself being embraced by those with conservative values, placing himself at least temporarily in danger of alienating many of those who fell all over themselves to praise him in the first place.
Hirst’s newest work, an installation entitled “The Miraculous Journey”, consists of 14 large bronze sculptures of a child, portrayed at various stages of development from conception to birth. It was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, and placed outside of the Sidra Medical and Research Center in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The largest single sculpture, that of the newly born child himself, stands 45 feet tall.
Tellingly, in reporting on this massive work of art, the New York Times fails to explore the inescapable pro-life message which it sends. Being the Times, the article focuses instead on the portrayal of sex and nudity in the Muslim world, reminding the reader – as if the reader was so stupid not to already be aware of it – that women in Qatar live in a very conservative, traditional Islamic environment. The piece spends far more time celebrating the fact that a woman commissioned the sculpture, and talking about Hirst’s checkerboard career to date, than it does examining the message of the art itself.
For example, the article quotes Mr. Hirst as explaining that once he himself became a father, be became interested in the miracle of childbirth. “Everyone talks about our life’s journey,” he commented to the Times, “but we have a whole journey before you’re born.” A more reputable publication would have pressed the artist on this point, since the obvious implication of this statement is a perhaps unexplored belief in the personhood of the unborn child. Instead, the Times simply lets the quote, without any further exploration.
We can all imagine what would have happened if, rather than in the Middle East, Mr. Hirst had been asked to create this work for a hospital in a major American city. In this country, where one may advertise for all sorts of contraceptives on television, but discussions of the realities of abortion and its aftermath are relegated almost exclusively to religious programming outlets, such a daring art installation would almost certainly be questioned and criticized openly by the media. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that this piece was created for a country whose culture is supposedly possessed of far less freedom of expression that that which we enjoy, yet no hospital in America would dare to install a massive piece of life-affirming art on its front lawn.
Whatever his personal intentions here may have been, or for that matter whatever he himself may think of policies such as abortion on demand, Mr. Hirst has shown us the power, and indeed the danger, of art which seeks to portray the truth. Here is a depiction of human life from its very beginnings which is not a simple illustration, but rather something absolutely monumental in scale, weighing well over 200 tons. The potential danger here, to those who do not want us to view human life as such in all of its stages, is what the impact of this art may be. And here we must consider not only those who are on the fence about the issue, but those who thought they understood what an individual human being’s development looks like. A reasonable viewer of this piece may very well find themselves asking, at what stage in a child’s development they would feel comfortable in bringing about its death.
This not-so-little person portrayed in bronze is clearly designed to make us think, not only about anatomy and science, two subjects which have fascinated Mr. Hirst throughout his career to date, but about even more fundamental issues of life and death. The size itself ought to tell us how large the stakes are, particularly when the person portrayed is shown as being as large as an automobile, rather than something which could be easily hidden away within the pages of a book, cropped out of a photograph, or buried within a blog post such as this. For many therefore, this new installation must be a very disturbing work of art, indeed.
Part of “The Miraculous Journey” by Damien Hirst (2013)
Sidra Medical and Research Center, Doha, Qatar