William Hunter to Damien Hirst: The Dead Teach the Living
Hirst’s ‘Necromancer’ work takes centre stage in a thoughtful exhibition exploring the connections between art and science
A student-curated display on the subject of death in art courtesy of the University of Glasgow’s MLitt Curatorial Practice (Contemporary Art) course, the single most high-profile reason for anyone to see this show is that it features the public debut of Damien Hirst’s 2007 sculpture ‘Necromancer’, until now held in Anthony d’Offay’s private collection. Although Hirst’s stock has sunk amongst many critics from the days of the YBA, primarily for that audacious and foolhardy diamond-encrusted skull which firmly cemented the link between contemporary art and acquisitive, ostentatious oligarchy, there remains to these eyes something very powerful about his visceral and unflinching meditations on death.
‘Necromancer’ is at once sinister and serene; the eyes are drawn immediately to the twin human foetuses in jars alongside one another, one whole and one bisected down the middle, and the search of the accompanying information to discover that they’re only plaster casts is hurried. But still… the evocation of fragile and finished life is powerful when measured against the many other items on display in this glass cabinet, an array of sleek, shining gynaecological implements whose proximity to the specimen jars brings home a vivid correlation of the emotional loss and the functional medical processes of death.
Elsewhere the selection is small, but very well-chosen. As with the cold functionality of Hirst’s piece, the most sinister works here are those intended for medical use only; a cast of the womb of a woman who died near the end of her pregnancy, as commissioned by the Scottish physician William Hunter circa 1770; an etching of a drawing of three dancing skeletons created for the purposes of anatomical study by the 16th century Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius; and a first edition of Nobel Prize-winning Spanish scientist and neurology pioneer Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s 1895 text Elements of Histiology and Micrographic Technique, whose painstaking drawing of dissected brain cells influenced the work of surrealists like Joan Miro and Yves Tanguy.
Alongside these, other pieces include Scott Rogers’ A Call to the Old Ones, a film of a working lark mirror – used to confuse birds during hunting and in quackish attempts to hypnotise humans – alongside specimen jars containing a starling brain and a human eye. Everything chosen sits well together and is vividly thought-provoking, with the power of both scientific and artistic exploration well represented and balanced.
Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, until 5 Mar 2017.