Damien Hirst standing beside the 2006 piece I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, made from butterflies and household gloss on canvas. Image: Matt Dunham
News emerged this week that Damien Hirst’s recent blockbuster retrospective
at the Tate Modern, which included a severed cow’s head covered with flies and a sheep in formaldehyde, was also responsible for the death of over 9,000 butterflies during the exhibition’s 23-week run.
Hirst was never a favourite with animal rights activists, but the figures released by The Tate Modern art gallery have once again raised questions about how far artists can go in the name of art and raised eyebrows at organisations such as the UK's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Butterfly Conversation.
'In this so-called "art exhibition," butterflies are forced to exist in the artificial environment of a closed room for their entire lives. There would be national outcry if the exhibition involved any other animal, such as a dog. Just because it is butterflies, that does not mean they do not deserve to be treated with kindness," said an RSPCA representative.In and Out of Love
was Hirst’s first solo exhibition – in 1991 he hung white canvases with butterfly pupae glued to them in a humid room in Soho. The butterflies hatched and flew around the room for the rest of their short life cycle – feeding on sugared water and fruit as well as hopefully mating and laying eggs before they died. The piece was recreated for what is now the Tate Modern's most successful exhibition to date and the first major retrospective of the artist in his native Britain.
According to The Tate, through In and Out of Love
‘themes of life and death as well as beauty and horror are highlighted, dualities that are prevalent in much of the artist’s work’. The restaging of this work at one of the world's most popular art galleries was met with widespread public outrage, but also glowing reviews from arts critics.
'It is very sad to hear of the death of so many butterflies. Butterfly Conservation is concerned that this work represents a throwaway approach to living creatures and encourages a lack of respect for the environment,’ said Dr Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation.
‘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,’ said a spokesperson for PETA.
The Tate defended the use of the insects, a spokesman for the organisation assured audiences that ‘the butterflies used in this work were all sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses and were selected from varieties known to thrive in the conditions created. The butterflies lived out the final stage of their natural life cycle inside this room’.
‘Approximately 400 butterflies were introduced to the exhibition over the course of each week, with many enjoying longer life spans than in the wild due to the high quality of this environment.’
Hirst is famous for his controversial and eye-catching artworks, including The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
, a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, and For the Love of God
, a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.
Hirst’s mid-career retrospective has given the artist an opportunity to reflect
on 25 years of controversial creations and he doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon.
Hirst is certainly not the first artist to stir controversy
, particularly in relation to artwork involving live animals
. Earlier this year, a German artist
was prevented by a court order from strangling two puppies on stage in Berlin, purportedly protesting the way that sled dogs in Alaska and hunting dogs in Spain are killed when they are no longer able to work.
News of Damien Hirst's 'butterfly massacre' coincided with more uproar as the artist unveiled his latest work in Ilfracombe (UK) by giving the seaside town a 20-year loan of Verity, a 20-metre bronze statue of a pregnant, sword-wielding woman. This time, raising questions about the power of public art when it comes to regenerating towns.
Councillor Mike Edmunds, responsible for strategic planning in Ilfracombe, anticipated
the statue would attract visitors and have a positive economic impact on the coastal town.
‘Something like Verity is going to make a great difference to the economy of Ilfracombe because an enormous number of people will come to see the statue.’
‘There is still controversy over the design, people either like it or not, but people can make their own interpretation of the statue.’
Opinion over the town’s new guardian is divided. Hailed as a ‘modern allegory of truth and justice’, some see Verity as ‘grotesque’ and others find her ‘beautiful and unique’.
Engineer Melvyn Robinson told the Guardian
: ‘It’s not my cup of tea, I prefer my art a bit more conventional. It’s typical Damien Hirst, a bit Hannibal Lecter-ish. He can’t help himself, can he?’
Boatman Paul Barbery thinks the statue is ‘in completely the wrong place. What has she got to do with Ilfracombe? A mermaid would be better.’
'She’s a bit, well, naked for me. I don’t like her nipples very much, a bit too pointy. And those bits and pieces of her inside. You have no choice but to look,’ said pensioner Eve Martinson.
Felicity Cowley, a consultant at the Driftwood art gallery, disagrees, ‘I think the statue is brilliant. A midweek day in October is not usually very busy. We've had loads of people in. Whether you like it or not, it's a phenomenon, an attraction’.
Local tour guide Tim Brownings, who can see the statue from his house, was worried Hirst's latest art work would wreck his view of the sea. 'I think she enhances it actually. But for me the best thing is that she is getting people talking about art.’
Harbour master Rob Lawson admired the contrasting sides of Verity. 'One half of her is calm, beautiful; the other half is provocative – the human as an animal.’
Lawson also noted that if nothing else, the statue will serve as a noticeable landmark for seafarers. ‘Some people say they find it difficult to see the harbour entrance from out to sea. They won’t be able to miss it now.’
'Opinion is divided, but no-one can fail to be moved by it. It’s awe inspiring,’ said councillor Paul Crabb.