Matters of life and death

Relics, the largest retrospective show of the British artist's Damien Hirst's work to ever be collected, opens tomorrow night in Doha.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, by Damien Hirst is an artpiece of a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde as part of Relics in Doha. Courtesy Damien Hirst / courtesy Qatar Museum Authority
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During last year’s London Olympics, Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate Modern became the most popular solo exhibition in the history of the institution.

Visitors flocked to see his famously controversial works such as a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, a windowless room swarming with live butterflies and a diamond-­encrusted human skull.

Now, it is our turn. On Wednesday night, 27 years of Hirst’s artistic career will be unveiled to the public in Qatar Museum Authority’s (QMA) newest exhibition space Al Riwaq Doha.

The shark, whose proper title is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was shipped separately from its tank, which was refilled with locally sourced formaldehyde upon arrival and the butterflies also arrived safely, their environment carefully recreated a thousand miles from home.

The show is titled Relics because it brings together elements from as far back as the artist’s time at Goldsmith’s College at the University of London right up until the present day. It also bears this name because the majority of Hirst’s work deals with the uncomfortable subject of death. He deliberately juxtaposes symbols of life with morbid realities to force us to question our own mortality.

The show in London was sponsored by QMA and at the time, the chairperson, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, said that Hirst’s work represented a defining moment in British art and that the exhibition underlined their “mission of building bridges of hope, understanding and ­friendship”.

It was always part of the plan to bring the art back home. People in the Middle East are yet to become familiar with Hirst’s extravagant style and influential pieces.

“Damien Hirst is widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful contemporary artists and this exhibition showcases QMA’s commitment to showcasing art from around the world and sharing it with the people of Qatar,” says Jean Paul Engelen, the director of public art programmes, adding that the entire team is “thrilled” to present it.

To highlight its importance, QMA has also decided to take the show beyond the walls of the gallery. There will be a light-box of a shark tank driving around Doha to show the public the grandeur of the artist’s work and the outer walls of the Al Riwaq space have been entirely covered in Hirst’s famous spots.

Francesco Bonami, the Italian curator who was a former curator of the Venice Biennale in 2003 and who is based in New York, says that the exhibition shows work that encompasses Hirst’s entire artistic oeuvre. Sourcing work from both private and public collections, he has been working on the show for more than a year and sees it as “introducing a new language of contemporary art” to Qatar and beyond.

Also in the show is the series Lullaby Spring, a set of four stainless-steel cabinets filled with thousands of pills that are an allegory for the seasons. Although you can’t stop the decay and the inevitability of death, these polished cabinets suggest you can. In 2007, Hirst gained the European record for the most expensive work of art by a living artist when he sold one of these three-metre-wide cabinets containing 6,136 pills for US$19.2 million (Dh70m) to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. Although it is not clear if this work will be on display, part of the series will be – it is one of Hirst’s seminal works.

Relics is part of Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture, which is intended to celebrate the deep-rooted bilateral relations between Qatar and the UK. It aims not only to promote each other’s culture and forge new partnerships in education and research, but also to provide a platform on which to build new long-term relationships between institutions and communities.

As Hirst has a fortune of more than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), making him the world’s richest living artist, and Qatar is the world’s richest country, then what is a more apt symbol to enjoin them than a diamond-­encrusted skull that underlines both our humanity, mortality and fixation on material gains? It should certainly be a show to ­remember.

Relics runs from Thursday to January 2 at Al Riwaq, Doha