Damien Hirst—he of the cows suspended in formaldehyde and other infamous pieces of art—has a thing for pills.
For 20 years Hirst has displayed various seductive pharmaceuticals in glass cabinets on gallery and museum walls.
His Schizophrenogenesis exhibition in 2014 presented “sculptural editions” of these objects.
Now, Hirst has outfitted a 30-foot-tall Christmas tree with over 300 pill bottles, syringes, and other medical-inspired ornaments outside The Connaught Hotel in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood.
Hirst has called the installation “a celebration of togetherness, a joyful symbol of hope and love. For the decorations, I wanted to reference some of the amazing things that give us hope in the world today.”
Surely Mayfair’s hedge funders feel uplifted when passing the tree on their way to work in the morning, having just taken their daily cocktail of SSRIs and Statins.
How festive giant pills look when shaped like snowmen! And the syringes bring back memories from their reckless youth, when they almost overdosed on heroin. How lucky they are to be alive!
Hirst himself once had a drug and alcohol problem (he quit both roughly nine years ago).
In the ’90s, he was the enfant terrible of Britain’s elitist art world, the punk polluting its prestige—one of the central figures of the YBA (Young British Artist) crowd, whose other members include Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas.
Then Hirst became everything he once loathed: a populist businessman and publicity-monger whose multimillion-dollar works, including much of his pill art, were overhyped and overvalued.
At least that’s what critics said. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Hirst, too, confessed to feeling “guilty” about employing people to help produce his pill art over the years. “Sanding down pills, day in, day out…What have I done? I’ve created a monster. Back to the pub.”
Hirst’s iconoclastic persona has always been key to his appeal.
There’s nothing particularly new or challenging about his latest installation, but you have to appreciate the humor in it—the image of Mayfair’s staid, starched bankers grumbling about the perversity of a Christmas tree trimmed with needles and pill bottles labeled with the first verse of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’
Guests at The Connaught have thoroughly enjoyed Hirst’s new installation, according to The Connaught.
“The feedback has been very positive,” a hotel spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “It’s art, so obviously it’s a divisive subject, but [the tree] has started a thought-provoking debate.”
The Connaught commissioned the tree and has a long-standing relationship with Hirst, whose work hangs on the walls of the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant. “He was commissioned by the hotel when we had a big refurbishment in 2009,” the spokesperson said.
The Daily Mail reported complaints about the syringe tree from disgruntled neighbors, due to its proximity to a church.
One bemoaned “the tone of some of the decorations and objects on the tree,” arguing that “the sexual connotations of some of them is inappropriate and culturally insensitive.”
Gagosian, the gallery that represents Hirst, did not return requests for comment about the installation and its reception.
At 50, Hirst is no longer an enfant terrible but one of the world’s wealthiest and most famous artists, though he hasn’t produced anything exceptional in years.
Hirst’s pharmaceutical-inspired art is in keeping with his banal obsession with death and mortality, which we’ve seen in other works like “For the Love of God,” his 2007 diamond-encrusted skull which sold at auction for roughly $76 million.
Hirst’s Christmas tree installation certainly isn’t a departure for the artist. Indeed, it would hardly be interesting or amusing in a more traditional setting, like a gallery or a museum, which makes it more of a coup for The Connaught Hotel than for the artist.
As for those who alight upon it, the wealthy people who frequent Mayfair are more likely to be among those who frequent Hirst’s shows and invest in the Hirst brand at auction.
And then there are the well-financed complainers, tut-tutting their outrage.
Thanks to them, Hirst’s reputation as an enfant terrible artist is relevant again, if only for a few weeks.