Pharmacy – Damien Hirst

“I can’t understand why most people believe in medicine and don’t believe in art, without questioning either.”[1]

‘Pharmacy’ was first shown at the Cohen Gallery, New York in 1992. In the installation work, Hirst explores the distinctions between art and life, and the power given to pharmaceuticals by our unquestioning faith in them.

In the work the gallery space is covered with wall-to-wall medicine cabinets, stocked with empty pill packaging. The packaging acts as a contemporary museum which, “in a 100 years’ time this will look like an old apothecary.”[2]  At one side of the room, a receptionist’s desk holds four apothecary bottles representing earth, fire, air and water – the traditional symbol of the pharmacy. At the centre of the room hangs an Insect-O-Cutor, surrounded by stools on which sit bowls of honey and honeycomb. Hirst involves the viewer through the fly killer. He explains: ‘I hope you’ll realise you’re like a metaphor for the fly. [You’re involved] because you’re one of the things milling around inside the environment. It’s about a civilization, the collapse of a civilization. Something falling apart as it builds up.” Although he adds, “That’s how I read it, but if you walk in and think it’s a chemist’s shop that’s fine by me.”[3]

At the original 1992 exhibition of the installation, round holes were cut into the gallery windows in order to conceptually allow insects inside the space. Hirst explains this addition: “It’s like ideas coming in from outside; flies, butterflies, whatever, allowing inspiration to come in from the outside, like holes in the head for eyes or like the holes bored in the skulls of living people in the Middle Ages to let evil out.”[4] 

The artist created the work after witnessing that pharmacies “provoke an idea of confidence.”[5] He explains: “I went to the Chemist’s and thought, ‘I wish I could make art like that.’ Then I realised I could have it as it was.”[6] At its initial exhibition, the confusion visitors encountered on entering the installation upheld his intentions: “The doors open and you have the desk of the gallery and the back of the desk of the pharmacy; a cup of tea on it and a sandwich and the phone on and loads of stuff. So you walk behind the desk and you go, ‘Oh fuck. You’re in the wrong place. Everyone goes back in the lift. Pushing the button in the fucking lift. Then they come back up and go, ‘Where’s the Damien Hirst exhibition? … That’s it? … Fucking hell, it’s art.’ I love it.”[7]

In 1994, Hirst modified ‘Pharmacy’ for its exhibition in the Dallas Museum of Art (1994), encasing the Insect-O-Cutor within a vitrine containing rats.

[1] Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’ (Booth-Clibborn Editions; Reduced edition, 2005), 24

[3] Damien Hirst cited in ‘Life’s Like This and Then It Stops’,Adrian Dannatt (Flash Art, no. 169, 1993)

[6] Damien Hirst cited in ‘An Interview with Damien Hirst’, Stuart Morgan, ‘No Sense of Absolute Corruption’ (Gagosian Gallery, 1996), 21

[7] Damien Hirst cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 78–79