Damien Hirst works in a wide range of materials and forms — installations, sculpture, painting, and drawing — and seeks to challenge the boundaries
between art, science and popular culture. His energy and inventiveness, and his consistently visceral, visually arresting work, has made him a leading artist of his generation. Hirst explores the uncertainty at the core of human experience: love, life, death, loyalty, and betrayal through unexpected and unconventional media.
In this Lever House commission, Hirst presents an elaborate and surreal schoolroom that is populated with his most well known sculptures—glass tanks containing animal carcasses suspended in formaldehyde. The "students" are organized in three rows of equally spaced tanks placed on autopsy tables. The sheep in the tanks suggest docile and innocent youngsters involved in learning. However, Hirst presents contradictory states of being—the dead animals preserved in liquid are being fed through intravenous tubes, as if supporting life.
At the rear of the classroom is a single menacing and bloody shark that suggests aggression and fear, and a disruption of the calm and religious aura.
At the front of the room stands a twelve-foot tank containing two sides of beef, an umbrella, a birdcage containing a white dove, and an armchair. This surrogate "teacher" makes direct reference to paintings by two artists admired by Hirst—Francis Bacon and Rene Magritte. Bacon frequently incorporated beef in his paintings, particularly Painting (1946) which features a suited figure under an umbrella with cow carcasses suspended in a cruciform behind him, and Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (Study after Velasquez), 1954, depicting the screaming Pope Innocent X. Hirst has also borrowed from Magritte's The Healer (1936), which presents a seated man with a cane whose head and body are portrayed as a birdcage with doves that is covered with a cape and hat. Hirst seems to suggest that these demigods are directing the search for knowledge.
Around the perimeter of the space are numerous stainless steel cases containing a variety of prescription medicine packages. Hirst is again commenting on the inevitability of death and the almost religious belief in drugs for eternal salvation. Other objects in the school—blackboard, a desk with two live birds, inverted clocks, surgery instruments, ashtrays, glasses of water, and mounds of sand—refer to the dichotomy of life and death. An animal must be dead in order to be dissected and studied; birds are often used to test for toxic fumes; time will not go backwards; a dirty ashtray is a metaphor for life and death; water is needed to sustain life, yet all life forms inevitably decay into liquid and dust.
Damien Hirst's School is a complex and thought provoking presentation' that makes numerous references to art, science, art history, authority, knowledge, culture, religion, and beliefs. It is surprising and unexpectedly beautiful, and despite its macabre contents, Hirst clearly states: "I am preoccupied with life, not death."