Damien Hirst’s installation In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) at the Yale Center for British Art considers the precarious connection between life and art. The current display contains only half of the original installation, which was first presented 30 years ago in London at the Woodstock Street Gallery. Hirst’s first solo exhibition took up two floors and included a room with live butterflies, which are omitted from the current exhibition.
Included in the installation are eight large, monochrome canvases painted with high gloss house paint in grass green, bubblegum pink, minty blue, pumpkin orange, tangerine orange, fuchsia, and sky blue. Butterflies, varying in size, shape, and color, sparsely cover the canvases, stuck in the paint by their wings.
Walking into the room, a white table with cigarette butt-filled ashtrays sits in front of four of the canvases. The cigarettes seem out of place, like the table is part of something separate. Amid the room are four large, white cubes with a hole in each side. Without prior knowledge of their part in the display, the cubes are confusing: are they part of the installation, or should there be more art sitting on top of them?
Further adding to the lack of clarification is that the text description is not obviously placed, as it is not at the forefront of the display and is rather small. I had to search for the text so I could understand what I was looking at.
In an interview with artist Sophie Calle, Hirst explained the installation with the butterflies: “It’s about love and realism, dreams, ideals, symbols, life and death,” he said. This half of the installation presents a romanticized view of death, showing the beauty of the butterflies even after they have died.
The exhibition as a whole connects the ideas of life and art: Butterflies are brought into life on one floor and made into art on another. Some butterflies have holes ripped from their wings, while others have splotches of paint covering their wings. In some areas, creases in the paint seem to indicate the butterfly’s struggle. The life force of the butterfly is memorialized on the canvas.
Seeing the cover for the exhibition, I anticipated a pretty and magical experience. The realization that the butterflies were real brought horror. A wall text described the process, that “butterflies were hatched and lived on sugar water in an artificial humid environment until they died.” At the original exhibition in London, Hirst hatched the butterflies and then lured them with flowers to their painted deaths.
The ethics involved in the creation of this work are dubious: At what cost is an artist willing to create art? Hirst forced the payment for his art upon unassuming butterflies by hatching the living creatures with the sole purpose to end their lives cruelly and quickly. The artwork is pretty—but it lacks empathy and morality. Exiting the exhibition, another visitor joked, “Is this from Silence of the Lambs?”
The question Hirst would leave viewers with is whether a line can ever be drawn between art and life. What I want viewers to consider is whether that line can be crossed.
Damien Hirst's In and Out of Love is part of Love, Life, Death and Desire, running at the Yale Center for British Art through Dec. 31. Jenna McIlwrath is a senior at the University of New Haven, where she is majoring in music and sound recording and minoring in art. This piece comes to us through a collaboration with UNH Professor Jacquelyn Gleisner, who is also a contributor to the Arts Paper, and students in her class Arts 3301, Writing for Designers.