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Overview and critical analysis of Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years
Damien Hirst‘s A Thousand Years (1990) is a large-scale, mixed media installation that incorporates elements of painting, sculpture, and taxidermy. The work consists of a glass vitrine containing a white painted cow’s skull on a bed of straw, surrounded by flies. Above the vitrine hangs an electric fly trap.
The tale of when Damien Hirst received a phone call from an art gallery to inform him that Francis Bacon—one of the artist’s major influences—had stood, enthralled, in front of the same Hirst piece for an hour is apocryphal. A Thousand Years, which had previously been shown at Building One’s crucial YBA exhibition in 1992, was, by the time Bacon saw it, a well-known work. That the story has circulated at all, though, is testament to the way in which Hirst’s early oeuvre—particularly the pieces he made while still a student—took Bacon’s themes and iconography and ran with them.
“a prime example of Hirst’s early exploration of the themes of death and decay. ”
It’s in A Thousand Years—and in the later, now iconic The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)—that Hirst’s concepts and influences are most clearly revealed and most thoroughly explored. “There has only ever been one idea, and it’s the fear of death; art is about the fear of death.”
A Thousand Years is a prime example of Hirst’s early exploration of the themes of death and decay. The work alludes to the cycle of life and death, as well as the transitory nature of existence. The cow’s skull, a symbol of mortality, is juxtaposed with the electric fly trap, which represents the futile attempts of humans to control the natural world.
Hirst’s use of mixed media in A Thousand Years allows him to create a multi-layered work that engages the viewer on multiple levels. The work is visually arresting, and the viewer is immediately drawn into its macabre world. The title of the work adds another layer of meaning, as it references the biblical story of Creation. In this story, God created the world in seven days, and on the seventh day he rested. A Thousand Years can be seen as a commentary on the human condition, and our attempts to control the natural world.