Damien Hirst’s solo exhibition 'Mental Escapology’ in St. Moritz
In 2007 as a student at Goldsmiths I had my third, and most memorable encounter with Damien Hirst’s work when I visited ‘Beyond Belief’, his solo exhibition at the White Cube Gallery in London. The centrepiece of the exhibition was his platinum human skull encrusted with 8601 flawless diamonds, For the Love of God (2007). While the work was certainly extraordinary to behold, sparkling and otherworldly, the commanding memory of the experience was the hurdles one had to navigate before one reached the sculpture - limited persons at a time; requirement of pre-booking; being vetted by an intimidating security guard, much like a dvarapala of old; descending into a small dark room via a private elevator; circumnavigating yet another large security man to finally behold the piece de resistance. In Covid times these measures are par for the course but in 2007 the drama of access set ones nerves on edge and made the experience macabre and sublime.
On a sunny and cold day I drove seven hours from Geneva to see Damien Hirst’s exhibition Mental Escapology in St. Moritz. The artist’s first exhibition in Switzerland included 40 artworks across two indoor and three public sites, including one inaccessible 12 foot sculpture The Monk (2014) installed the middle of the frozen lake. The exhibition, curated by Jason Beard, included works from Hirst’s well known series: Natural History, Spot Paintings, Kaleidoscope Paintings and Mental Escapology. Set alongside the lake in this idyllic alpine town and within two historically significant buildings: the first a Swiss spa and the other a Protestant Church, the exhibition aimed at creating a dialogue between the natural and manmade and between different moments in time, the present and past, the historic and the contemporary. The success or lack thereof of this ambition requires a closer examination of Hirst’s oeuvre.
The largest group of works in the exhibition were from the Spot (Pharmaceutical) Painting series painted between 1998-2011 but unlike the better known works from this series, many are made of irregular sized and randomly placed coloured dots deviating from the grid structure they normally follow. Shown at the Forum Paracelsus, a medicinal thermal spa dating back to 1866 and fed by a spring first recorded around 1400 BC, the Spot paintings and a supporting installation Space, Time, Form, Matter, Substance, Change and Motion (2000) wherein colourful plastic balls bounced around in a rectangular glass vitrine powered by a powerful air vent speak to the healing and medicinal properties of the site. Ranging in size the works take their titles arbitrarily from the chemical company Sigma-Aldrich’s catalogue ‘Biochemicals for Research and Diagnostic Reagents’, a book Hirst stumbled across in the early 1990’s. Thus far, almost 60 Spot paintings have been made by Hirst’s assistants annually over the past 24 years. By their very nature, of being perfectly formed colour spots painted either within or outside a geometric structure, the attempt is to remove the evidence of human hand and imitate perhaps how a machine might paint to an algorithm. In times of Covid where the scientific race to find solutions -- and the possible fallout of the vaccinations has preoccupied scientists around the world -- fired the imagination of the public and fuelled social and policy debates. In such a context, the opaqueness of science is perfectly mimicked by the illegibility of the Spot paintings.
The earliest work displayed at the Forum Paracelsus, Analgesics (1993), presents two sheep heads preserved in formaldehyde solution in facing glass vitrines placed well below eye level on the floor. From his notorious Natural History series, which grew, Hirst has said, from an imagined zoo of dead animals , this work, along with Bouillabalanced (2009) and The Ascension (2003), installed at the Church are, for many, the hardest to comprehend. Is it simply Damien Hirst being the enfant terrible of contemporary art, audacious and macabre and borderline megalomaniac? Hirst himself has referenced religion, death and the tragic beauty of art in reference to this series of works. He goes back to the time of hunters and gatherers and their use of animal blood to adorn their hilly abodes with primitive paintings; he talks of the omnipotence of the capitalist economy; the objectification of life to turn it into art; the fascination with glass cases, aquariums, vitrines and laboratories and finally an early disillusionment with religion in relation to this series. And the placement of Ascension, a six legged calf in formaldehyde, positioned upward/ heavenward, within the Protestant Church, a revolutionary time in the history of Swiss catholic society is certainly meaningful. These works are descendants of artists such as Jacques Gautier-D’Agoty and Francis Bacon and the illustrious western art history of écorché figures; like these, Hirst’s animal installations make us confront mortality. When I view these works, so popular by now, and think back to Atul Bhalla’s performative work Mashk (2006) we can begin to question the lack of emotion in the Natural History series. In Bhalla’s work there is no erasure of the author and the moral, emotional and ethical conflict is available for the viewers to access and work through. Hirst denies any questioning or negation of the process, making the viewer culpable in the violent extremities of the process. Hirst likes to work in series and has done so consistently through his professional life, the repetitiveness has also depersonalised the practice that is so successful commercially. And so one if forced to wonder whether the work doesn’t situate itself firmly in the capitalist trope and gain enormously from that which it claims to critique
In the centre of St. Moritz, in the Protestant church, built between 1785-1787, were displayed the majority of the Butterfly paintings in the exhibition. We begin with the early iterations Forgotten Teens, Forgotten Dreams and Me Missing You (all from 2008) of randomly located butterflies on single coloured canvases, to give the impression that the insects had simply landed on the colour field. Then came the Psalm series, also from 2008, of butterfly wings decorating entire canvases. And finally the Kaleidoscope series from 2019 of concentric circles of different butterfly wings that from afar resemble stained glass rose windows, characteristic architectural features of Catholic churches. The cruelty of the Natural History series reaches a pinnacle with these works when one witnesses the massacre of thousands of butterflies. These works fill you with rage, the same rage perhaps when confronted with images of the immense inhumanity with which refugees, migrant workers, children in Yemenaretreated.Whyonly Yemen? Hirst’s entire construct is to create works that repel and attract you simultaneously and the Kaleidoscope paintings certainly achieve that, the horror at being seduced by the tactile sensual beauty of the butterfly wings.
The exhibition also presented three large scale public sculptures around the lake. The first, The Monk (2014), a 12 foot bronze seated man holding his head, was impossible to see from the viewing point on the banks of the lake and thus only experienced through images seen online. The second, Temple (2008), was a 21 foot bronze human anatomy study painted in vivid colours looked like an enlarged children’s science toy and lastly Two Figures with a Drum (2013). The work plays with ideas of archeology, excavation, cultural ambiguity and proto-religions as the sculpture of a man with perhaps far eastern features beats the drum placed on the head of a smaller figure, the head resembling a phallus and the two figures are encrusted with what look like organic growths - barnacles, moss, coral, weeds etc. Hirst claims to be fascinated with the ‘action of the world on things’ and in the late 90s submerged artworks and objects off the coast of Mexico to see what effect the sea would have on them. Shown in Venice in 2017 as part of ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’, an exhibition that Hirst claimed to comprise of retrieved shipwreck remains from the Indian Ocean was heavily criticised for the failure of the elaborate and expensive attempted hoax. Presented as artefacts in a museum, another recurring theme in Hirst’s practice, the sculptures seemed to lack imagination and ideas. 
Mental Escapology celebrated the diversity of Damien Hirst but unfortunately the exhibition design was uninspired and some of the electronic installations were unfortunately not functioning. While the exhibition was pegged as a mini retrospective it failed to present either a chronological or conceptual timeline of the artist or explain his meteorological fame and relevance within the context of social and cultural history.
1. An Interview: Hans Ulrich Obrist and Damien Hirst, 2007 (
2. Russeth, A. A Disastrous Damien Hirst Show in Venice, ARTnews May 8, 2017. https://www.artnews.com/artnews/news/a-disastrous-damien-hirst-show-in-venice-8262/