The Asthmatic Escaped II, 1992
Glass, steel, camera on tripod, film, saucer, biscuits, plastic cup and lid, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, inhaler
Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute
Gift of Marvin and Elayne Mordes and Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1993
Photo by: Cathy Carver
Titled The Asthmatic Escaped II, Damien Hirst created this piece in 1992 as a means of commemorating the painter Francis Bacon, who had asthma and passed away the same year as the creation of this piece. This piece exists as part of the exhibition in What Absence Is Made Of, held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. The collection of works is meant to explore the limits and possibilities in which an artist, or any person for that matter, is able to express absence and invite the audience to experience what is left behind as well as imagine what ceases to exist in the material world. While some of the other participating conceptual artists probe the medium of ideas and what can exist in place of physical objects, Hirst plays with the immediately familiar notion of such physical objects.
Composed of a camera on a tripod, film, a saucer, biscuits, a plastic cup with a lid, a t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and an inhaler contained in two glass boxes, Hirst uses the traditional understanding of mementos to his advantage in order to convey the literal idea of memories. Hirst’s use of two large glass cases is both a nod to his typical presentation method as well as an effective way to separate what still continues to exist as a whole and the fragments of what is left behind from what no longer exists. The divided glass case seemingly isolates the representation of an absent figure from the recording of the figure. Nonetheless, a representation of memories is presented to the audience.
What I find most compelling about this piece is the fact that, although it is supposed to be a monument of Bacon, objects degrade and memories fade. While the clothes and inhaler are rather clear representations of Bacon, they appear to be well used. Clothes and shoes can be washed and reused for other things. However, inhalers contain medical ingredients that eventually expire and are no longer effective. Without the ability to breathe or enable someone else to breathe, it is dead. The inhaler is Bacon, in the sense that its lack of moving air is the suffocating reality that death occurs and life goes on.
This can also be seen on the other side of the glass case that contains the camera on a tripod, film, plastic cup with a lid, saucer, and biscuits. Like the recurring theme of large glass cases, Hirst also has a tendency to work with objects that will eventually rot. Biscuits combined with the saucer and plastic cup, the set of objects perhaps stand in place as the present moment. It can also be a representation of sustenance made to be consumed in order to live. Presented on the side with the camera, it could be linked to the notion that cameras and photographs are known to capture a moment of the past. While this could be read as a current living moment or as a moment in the past that exists as purely as a memory, it is necessary to mention that the film is not in the camera but on the floor.
It is unclear if the film has been used or simply unravelled. However, an exposed roll of film that was used to capture images is just as useless as one that was blank. Looking back at all the observations, perhaps Hirst’s ultimate plan was not to display the absence of Bacon, but to portray the absence of memories. Although I find ideas of death and absence to be compelling, the absence of memory is rather chilling. The absence of memory is essentially the be-all and end-all, and for it to be presented as mere objects, despite being carefully selected, highlights a very particular existential crisis. For this reason, I am both intrigued by the piece and its place in the overarching exhibition, as well as anxious.
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See The Asthmatic Escaped II as well as the rest of the exhibition, What Absence Is Made Of, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., from now until Spring 2020. For more information, visit What Absence Is Made Of.