Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided, Steel, GRP composites, glass, silicone sealants, cow, calf, and formaldehyde solution, 1993, may be seen at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo.
An acquaintance once asked me what I make of Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided. Here’s one way to think about it: much of Damien Hirst’s art is rooted in a happy intersection of Conceptualism and Arte Povera.
Conceptualism dispenses with the material artifact as the primary site of “artfulness” (or whatever) in favor of finding art in abstracta such as a concept or a nexus of reponses. For example, one famous instance of conceptual art is Weiner’s 1968 piece, One standard dye marker thrown into the sea, which consists simply the phrase “One standard dye marker thrown into the sea”. Note that the “artifact” in this instance isn’t the sea, and it isn’t any such dye marker, and it isn’t any ballistic gesture; the artifact is the concept arising from those linguistic tokens when regarded by a linguistically and conceptually competent agent (such as you).
For another example, Kosuth’s 1965 One and Three Chairs juxtaposes an unremarkable chair with a dictionary definition of “chair” and a photo of the chair. The artifact is neither the chair nor the Platonic chairness that someone like Meinong would find transcending the chair, nor the photo, nor the linguistic elements that denote the chair and its definition. The artifact, rather, is a nexus of concepts instantiating something that (later) Wittgenstein said about the assignment of meaning within linguistic communities– an assignment that occurs, among other places, when a viewer (such as you) confronts the chair, its definition, its visual (mis)representation, and all the unstated baggage thereunto appertaining.
Arte Povera is a child of Conceptualism that joins this preoccupation with artfully valuated abstracta to a similarly strong preoccupation with allusive, connotatively charged physical debris of various kinds and calibres. The physical components of a work of Arte Povera are not the “work of art”, but are in various ways ancillary, and in other ways necessary, to its presentation or propositionality.
Hirst exhibits both interests in the half-calf piece.
What does he give us? Two pairs of rectilinear, glass-walled cases stand in parallel, each containing the suspended half of a lengthwise-bisected cow or calf.
From a vantage to one side, a viewer (such as you) sees only the case nearest him, and sees only the outside of that particular calf-half. Likewise, viewing the pair from the exactly opposite vantage also yields the appearance of a single case showing only the exterior of some real veal.
Already, Hirst raises a host of interesting issues: what role does a canonical or approved vantage point play in the process of interpretation? How does the restriction of information qualify and potentially mislead during that process? What is the relationship between three-dimensional plasticity (as with a sculpture) and the viewer’s own mobility or immobility?
Issues multiply as we consider the piece further. Moving away from a vantage perpendicular to one case or the other, we come to recognize that the innermost part of the cow or calf when it was intact and alive now stands as a newly exposed exterior. Here, Hirst draws attention to the relationship between interiority and exteriority by confusing categories that we normally regard as antonymous. He not only raises the question of how our binary concept, (interior/exterior), relates to actual matter, but also makes that theme relative to our own dynamic, iterative process of sizing up, traipsing around, and actively interpreting the work. For as we walk toward and around the paired half-calves, or calf-halves, the balance of exterior to interior within our field of vision shifts, one outweighing the other or vice versa according to our own navigational choices. The more we learn through this empirical procedure, the more our activity itself emphasizes the thematic differences between life as we embody it and death as the immobile, immersed, bisected beef does.
Remarkably, the proximity of one case to another poses a problem (for the interpretation of this artifact) that we’re able to generalize. The closer one moves to the space between the cabinets, the more one can see of the gory face-to-face of exposed interiors. However, the cases (as shown in the photo), are too close for a viewer to enter between them and comfortably view the exposed innards on either side. Nevertheless, thinking about the scenario makes clear that if the viewer were able to stand exactly between the cases (and adjust his height), he would be able to see only one half-calf at a time. There is a central position from which it is no longer possible to see both halves. In this way, the work illustrates that, relative to stance and the spatial relationships that obtain in a given domain, the field of human vision potentially brackets out two-ness or plurality in favor of the singular focus.
Different perspectives on the outside of an object, person, or problem might yield different impressions of an object’s (person’s, problem’s) integrity and composition. Likewise, but perhaps less obviously, different perspectives on the symmetrical, compositionally exposed, ordinarily inaccessible interior of an object (potentially metaphorical) might also yield different impressions of that object’s integrity and composition.
From dead center, the pelt, eyes, and other exterior features we normally associate with an animal are wholly masked by the guts and bones. The beast has been cut lengthwise at its broadest point. Perhaps division is a quality not only of bifurcated beef, but also of human consciousness and conceptualization themselves, and perhaps this is so in all interpretation, not just in this instance.
Of course, thematizing our limited information about physical objects is nothing new, and generalizing about the limits of human perception and conception well beyond such an object is also nothing new. Consider the “Blind Men and the Elephant” for one common instance of the theme. Surplus interest here lies in the fact that Damien Hirst makes that timeworn point by alluding to an ongoing intra-artistic dialogue. Hirst is invoking points made both by Rembrandt and by Francis Bacon.
Hirst makes the same sort of point, but in a clean, antiseptic, white-frame-encased, curatorially austere manner, with none of the hysteria and angst typical of Modernistic lamentations like those of Bacon. The Postmodern, in this case (or quartet of cases), may be seen as a place where the shattered sense of self and the fragmented master narrative of art historical discourse intersect the coldly formal technological and institutional environment of contemporary advanced art. And, for Hirst, perhaps the qualities of that intersection can be generalized over various aspects of human experience– aspects such as motherhood.
Human experience meets bovine experience where spatial disposition meets title. There’s a position within the museum from which the side-on view of the half-calf makes it look like a whole-calf. There’s also a single position within the museum from which the demi-cow looks entire.
These points are different.
There’s also a single sideward position from which both the cow and the calf look misleadingly whole. However, that position requires some distance; that position is outside the museum. What does this tell us about the effects of staging on the limits of possible interpretation?
The work’s title stands in an awkward relationship with the elements of the work, as titles mostly do and mostly have done. (Most of the titles of well known artworks were assigned after the fact by art historians, curators, dealers, and collectors.) “A Mother and Child Divided” suggests a relationship and a status. The relationship is one of parenthood and childhood– a matrilineal, meiotic stunt, but also a suggestion of value since “mother” carries broader and deeper connotations than “parent” (which is itself broader and deeper than “zygotic source”).
The status is division, and that division is unambiguously material, but problematically social. Materially, the cow is divided in halves and the calf is divided in halves. Socially, the cow is separate from the calf, the mother from the child. But what makes this separation a “division” rather than “togetherness”? At what degree of proximity does a spatial relationship’s meaning invert? When does “with” become “adjacent to” and when does the latter become “near”, and that become “far from”?
Carrying forward the metaphorical substratum noted in my earlier comments, the work prompts me to wonder about the extent to which an individual’s inner bifurcation informs her sense of social separation. How does a house or human divided against himself stand in relation to his neighbor(hood)?
“Divided” is a participle– a verbal form used as an adjective. The cow as “Mother” is divided from her calf as “Child”. But then, this locution removes agency from the cow; division is something that has been done to her. What has divided the one from the other, and each from itself? Materially, each has been divided from itself by a saw blade. Socially, however, the matter is unclear. What is it, if anything, that divides Mother from Child in that respect? And when the viewer meanders into the perimeter defined by all four cabinets, is the viewer thereby implicated in the latter, divisive social disintegration?
Organic forms thus divided stand suspended in inorganic presentational devices. To what extent is our own identity constructed or deconstructed by inorganic framing devices that determine and delimit the range of our own possible meanings?
Consider, by way of comparison, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. Is the group on the left divided from the group on the right?
And finally, what is the relationship between the experience of considering this work and the experience of considering lunch in the museum’s cafe afterward? Are you torn in your desire for a roast beef sandwich, cut neatly in half, that now stands as both compelling and repugnant?
More could be said, especially by making reference to Hirst’s and critics’ comments about Mother and Child Divided, but these remarks illustrate one fruitful way to make an initial approach.