Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years, 1990
“You can frighten people with death or an idea of their own mortality, or it can actually give them vigour.” – Damien Hirst
Reading Hirst’s famous words that he spoke when describing his work A Thousand Years are interesting to me, particularly in the fraught times we are living in at this moment. Living in a pandemic brings up challenges I never thought I would face. I have never been more aware of my own mortality, or that of others – everyday we are faced with rising numbers of deaths, hospitalisations, and illnesses. We are fed these numbers as though they are food and we are the starving recipients. Whether we want to hear them or not, we do not have a choice – unless we locked ourselves in a plain room with nobody around; we hear them on the news, on the radio, on talk shows, through friends and even brief conversations with strangers.
Hirst’s words do strike a chord with me; I think there have been two ways people have reacted during the pandemic. Some have shrunk away, and stayed indoors and kept safe. I do not think there is anything wrong with it, during lockdown in particular I felt terrified my parents would get the virus and become very ill. The other way people have reacted is by striving to become the best versions of themselves. There have been such incredible acts of kindness and bravery, and also amazing work which has been produced from art, to music, to film and photography. Even though the arts have suffered huge losses economically, there never seems to be a loss of hope, renewal, and vigour.
I was drawn to A Thousand Years by Hirst as the resounding concept of a life cycle is similar in part to my own work this semester. It places the element of life on a tightrope, teetering towards falling off towards the other element of death. They are ever connected, they will always meet at some stage. The work itself is made up of two large glass vitrines, they each have access to one another through four holes in the middle. One vitrine holds a large dice shaped box. The other vitrine houses a cow’s severed head, lying on the ground in a pool of its blood. There are maggots in the two boxes, which grow into flies, which feast on the cow’s head – here is the cycle of birth and life. The final element of this piece is death – to establish this, Hirst has placed a fly catcher at the top of the vitrine, which is designed to electrocute flies and kill them as soon as they touch it. Death is inevitable in this case, like in life.
My first question when viewing this piece was, why a dice? The huge dice shaped box in the other vitrine seemed so out of place and without purpose. This was until I realised there is only one dot on each side of the die. Hirst is throwing at our faces the sadistic game of life – we cannot win, avoiding death cannot be a game we play forever.
What is interesting about this work is the shock factor. We are still horrified by the concept of death. The constant movement created by the flies is hopeful, energetic, full of life until one moves just slightly too far and ZAP! The fly falls to the floor… Are we as concerned by this as we are by witnessing the severed head of the cow? Do we see death on a scale of importance; do we grieve more over the life of something larger or smarter? The work brings up a lot of questions about human nature.
The life cycle shown in this work should not horrify us – it is nature, and renewal. What I believe should shock us is the non-existent cycle brought about by disposable, single use plastic. The whole world exists on varying cycles; the moon cycles around the earth, the earth cycles around the sun. The water we use cycles around our planet, being used again and again. The oak tree drops an acorn which grows into an oak tree. As humans, we have invented a product which goes against nature; that never disappears or is re-used. I seek to change that in whatever small way I can, by creating a life-cycle for the disposable mask.
Martin Creed, Work No. 2814, 2017
“I thought the trees were the obvious way to hang them.” – Martin Creed
This work by Martin Creed was pointed out to me during a workshop as it related to my own ideas for the collaborative project, and also my work in my own project. It was part of a free, open-air art exhibition called Sculpture in the City. Creed’s work features a tree in Bishopsgate, the branches of which are embellished with what looks to be brightly coloured lanterns… On closer inspection you notice a supermarket’s logo – ah! They are plastic bags.
Plastic bags caught in a tree. We see them all the time but we never really notice them. Creed’s work forces us to, to notice the world around us and all that is in it. He is elevating the status of what many would perceive as rubbish and disregard as non-important, writing; “Little things are important; I prefer the bags to the cars. I wanted to make small things into big things.” (Epps).
The ‘blossoms’ of the tree, although plastic bags, are strangely beautiful and meaningful. The plastic bag has been recognised for some time now to be an abhorrent item; regarded with hatred by those who have a love and respect for the environment and with annoyance by those who object to the recent 5p charge. We still see them everyday as litter; they do not decompose and they are not strong enough to be used again and again. They are incredibly similar to the disposable masks I have been focusing on in my project, indeed, it seems as though masks have almost replaced plastic bags as the new urban rubbish.
The work is successful at raising awareness in my opinion; it is centred in a busy area of London where many people walk by. It is also a well-kept area, so the bags caught in the tree will catch attention easily. It draws on the way bags fly through the wind, getting caught in tree branches, and exaggerates this to the maximum by filling the tree with the bags. Although absurd and humorous, it is done skilfully and so will attract people who perceive art as only worth looking at if aesthetically pleasing.
This week we had the third workshop in the series, preparing for our collaborative project. The focus for the workshop was proposing our individual ideas for the project, and then deciding on one to go ahead with. I really enjoyed hearing everyone’s ideas and talking about the different ways we could respond to the theme of Nature. I find that these workshops where we come up with a collaborative project are very interesting as it also allows us to understand the concepts and aspects of art each one of us are inspired by.
I found it surprising how when I was proposing my idea, although I did not consciously feel worried, I became quite nervous once I was at the front of the class presenting. I think this must be because it is a developed idea and not just our usual style of talking through quick concepts and thoughts as a group. The change in position as well, by standing at the front of the group facing them, could have contributed as well to the nerves. I would have perhaps felt better with some notes; something to remember for my next presentation.
The idea that we all voted for was by Amy, and we developed it with ideas from us all, including elements of my own project. We have decided as a group to raise awareness of disposable masks, and the dreadful impact they have on the environment. This is obviously an issue close to my own heart, as it is what I am focusing on with my work this semester. In workshop 4, instead of bringing research of similar artists to the group, we have decided instead to prepare for the collaborative project in workshop 5.
To do this, we will each wear a plain white face mask, which in workshop 4 we will be painting onto. We will be painting them with images of the environmental issues masks are causing, such as littering the sea bed and getting caught on wild life. We will also be collecting masks throughout the two weeks leading up to the project, in the same way I have been collecting masks that have been thrown on the floor. Onto these masks we will be writing statistics which we have gathered regarding the destruction they are causing to our planet.
The plan is to string these collected masks up onto a long piece of string. We will then each wear our painted mask, and starting from the top of the university we will carry the collected disposable masks down Penglais Hill, all the way onto the seafront. This will hopefully raise awareness in Aberystwyth of the damage caused by disposable masks and littering them onto the floors.
I have been experimenting further with my masks this week, and creating more ‘yo-yo’ circles out of them, as I explained in the previous week. Some masks, particularly the re-useable masks that I found, I was able to get two little pots out of. I found the best way to do the masks was to cut out all of the circles first, and then I could focus on sewing them. This seemed to be the quickest method. There were frustrations when sewing the masks, such as when the thread broke when I was gathering the pleats, but overall I really enjoyed the repetitive process.
I decided to photograph the masks before I did any further experimentation, as by this stage I had collected quite a lot and they looked rather effective when placed together on a white backdrop. For some reason, they really do remind me of a microscopic image of a virus. I have edited some of the images into alternate colourways, making them look more alien and medical. I like this burgeoning relationship between the disposable masks and the medical virus image; perhaps I could explore and experiment with this more in subsequent weeks?
I then began the process of using my ‘yo-yo’ circles as pots to grow herbs from. This took a lot longer than I expected, and I encountered different problems which I had to find solutions to. This is the best way to experiment I think, as until you have a go you never really know whether something will work.
- I did not want to get the pots dirty as much as possible – obviously some were already slightly grubby from being thrown onto the road etc. To keep them as clean as possible I made sure I washed my hands regularly and also used a funnel to put the soil into them.
- The pots required different funnel sizes – some openings were large and some were small, fortunately I had a variety of sizes.
- The soil was too moist to go into the funnel. This meant I had to dry the soil out before putting them into the pots. To do this the most effectively, I put small amounts of soil into containers and had them on a sort of conveyer line process on the heated radiators which dried the soil.
- I had to use a pencil or skewer to push the soil through the funnel into the masks.
- As I wanted the pots to look as clean as possible I decided to put a small amount of cotton wool onto the mask opening. I know from experience that cress can grow through cotton wool so this would not be a problem.
- I also put small holes into the masks for air and drainage using a cocktail stick.
- I used a spray bottle to water the cress seeds once I had distributed them along the pots. This is a good way to avoid over-watering whilst keeping them all moist.