Damien Hirst: The Beautiful Afterlife

  Smoking is the perfect way to commit suicide without actually dying. I smoke because it's bad, it's really simple.
-Damien Hirst

HIRST, Damien. The Beautiful Afterlife. Zurich: Bruno Bischofberger, 1997.

4to; fully illustrated in color; pictorial wrappers. Fine.

First Edition. One of 1,000 signed and numbered copies; this is number 14, signed and inscribed, Damien Hirst, for Ruth.

The Beautiful Afterlife is Damien Hirst’s most successful artist’s book. Replete with his usual cheek and bad-boy panache, the book is a neat summation: he addresses his recurring theme of mortality and the inevitable decay of the body while simultaneously paying tribute to Andy Warhol, his principal artistic forefather.  In particular, the book is an overt homage to the immensely influential catalogue Warhol created to accompany his 1968 exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. As an object its dimensions are nearly identical to those of the Stockholm catalogue and the photograph on the exterior wrappers of Hirst’s book, an arrangement of artificially bright and garishly funereal flowers, overtly references the day-glo bright flower paintings Warhol used on the front and back covers of his book. 

Whether his materials are sharks or cow carcasses preserved in formaldehyde, neatly arrayed pharmaceutical products, or human skulls encrusted with diamonds, Hirst’s work rarely strays too far from thoughts of the weakness and fallibility of all flesh.  In this instance, as with some of his most celebrated sculptural works, the medium is cigarette ends.  Page after page, each butt is photographed dead in the center of a stark white background. With so little to look at, small variations loom large. Each Gitane, Rothman, Lucky or Marlboro is the remnant of a brief, half-conscious gesture; some are half smoked and daintily extinguished, others sucked down to the filter and emphatically crushed out. Though repetitive, the sequence of images is oddly fascinating. After so much hypnotic dullness, three images which appear at unexpected intervals (a box of matches, a bit of crumpled foil packaging, and a butane lighter) deliver a far greater jolt than such mundane objects have any right to do. 

In Hirst’s book there is a faint echo of Eliot: like Prufrock measuring out a life with ‘coffee spoons,’ these images show the arc of life through its small habitual acts. Even so, Hirst’s tone is hardly melancholy—defiance is more his style. Like Warhol, who used intimations of mortality to amp up the cool glamour of his work, Hirst digs death because to laugh in its face is by far the best way to create a rebel style. Or, in his words, "Let's have a drink, a smoke and a screw while we can because we'll all be dead soon... "