By Andy Shield
Clandestine creator, Chemical X, recently unveiled a photorealistic artwork depicting a cadaverous model jammed into an ocean of 7,000 ecstasy pills. With the “Spirit of Ecstasy” he’s thrusting the kitchen sink of shock at a post-Hirst generation — but is he preaching to the converted?
Back in 1596, when Caravaggio painted “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy”, little did he know that 400 years on, the title would be interpreted quite so literally. In the Italian master’s depiction, the venerable Saint sinks into the arms of a judicious cherub having been bestowed with Sacred Wounds to his hands, feet and side. In Chemical X’s recent work, a deified model dangles through transparent silicone amid a smorgasbord of class A uppers.
The model, believed to be Cara Delevingne, sports an ethereal expression and a dazzling white outfit. With her arms outstretched and hands semi-clasped, her posture could be construed as a reference to the crucifixion. Granted, the religious symbolism is a little oblique, but when you contextualise this with Chemical X’s previous work, the metaphor begins to surface.
In 2014, he allegedly manufactured 20’000 pills to create two towering murals resembling stained-glass windows. Effervescent doves carried olive branches and jaunty suns beamed irrepressible acid house smiles. This, like all of his work, drew heavily on rave culture iconography to deliver a stinging concept synonymous with the Young British Art generation of the 1990s.
Under the influence of Hirst
There’s more than an ounce of Damien Hirst running throughout the “Spirit of Ecstasy”, which is no surprise given that the infamous Bristolian is likely to be a contemporary. For every one of Hirst’s spots, there’s a pill — for each shark, there’s a model.
And therein lies the problem.
Twenty years ago, contrary religious iconography would’ve hit home with aplomb. But since the drama of Hirst’s existential exploration, it’s been dampened.
What could’ve been a powerful reference to the deification of celebrity beauty has become little more than a bullmastiff with dentures. Religious symbolism has been so brutally distorted over the years that warped representations have since lost their gravitas.
Hirst’s dissection of religion seems to stem from a marked desire to fill life’s chasm with something other than art. Exhibitions, including Romance in the Age of Uncertainty (2003), New Religion (2006), Superstition (2007) and In the Darkest Hour There May be Light (2007), hurl contorted allegories in our general direction.
For The Age of Uncertainty, “The Apostles” featured twelve mirrored cabinets filled with unsettling props to represent the gory demise of each saint. Visitors involuntarily recoiled at the thick stench of blood, as haphazard scientific equipment stared blankly back from its archaic trappings.
On the floor in front, twelve further vitrines symbolised Christ and the disciples in the form of animal skulls in formaldehyde. Christ’s case remained empty aside from the preservative and Judas faced the wrong way with eyes bound. While, at the end of the room, a piece entitled “The Ascension of Jesus” involved a dove in flight over a white cabinet with empty shelving.
Through these macabre flasks, jars, dead animals and measuring tubes, Hirst smashes together religion, art and science in a deliberately conspicuous way. He welds the metaphysical to the materialistic — the celestial to the crass.
Describing his 2003 exhibition, he explained: “I’m more interested in religion filling a hole for people. That’s how I look at it now. There’s a hole there in people. In everybody. In me. A hole that needs filling, and religion fills it for some people. And art for others. I don’t think religion is the answer, but it helps.”
Perhaps with the Spirit of Ecstasy, Chemical X is going one step further by acknowledging that Generation Z is filling that God-shaped void with glamour and escapism. If so, then this photorealistic conceptual work is an apt statement for a shiny synthetic age.