Damien Hirst’s life cycle of a fly installation faces criticism from animal rights activists

An installation by Damien Hirst titled A Hundred Years has been dismantled at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg after animal rights organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) filed a complaint against the museum. The artwork was part of the museum’s Power! Light! exhibition, a show which brought together works of light art by internationally renowned artists. The exhibition focused on artificial light and its positive and negative effects on civilisation and included works by contemporary artists such as Nana Petzet, Daniel Canogar, Monica Bonvincini and Daniel Pflumm.

Hirst’s contribution was first exhibited in 1990. It is comprised of a partitioned glass display case, with an artificial light on one side. On the other, flies hatch, and they then naturally venture towards the light through a hole in the partition. But as the fly reaches the light, it is burnt upon contact. This process, which Hirst has described as “a life cycle in a box”, continues until the end of the exhibition. It was first exhibited alongside the more infamous and brutal A Thousand Years, in which insects released from a container feed onto a severed cow’s head, above which is an insect-electrocuting light. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist comments that these were “the most pivotal works” from the 1990s, and explains the artist’s motivations behind these works through Hirst’s own statements about death: “The fear of death is the strongest emotion, so as an artist when you start thinking about these things you end up thinking about that kind of darkness. […] It’s about how you can cushion yourself from death in some way.”

The installation is well-suited to the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg’s exhibition on artificial light, and the director Andreas Beitin has even commented how the work draws attention to the fact that insects die every night from public light. PETA, on the other hand, has been extremely critical of the installation. Peter Höffken from PETA said in a statement that, “killing animals has nothing to do with art, it just shows the arrogance of people who literally will stop at nothing for their own interests”, and that according to Germany’s Animal Welfare Act, no one is permitted to harm an animal without “reasonable reason”.

In the museum’s defence, Andreas Beitin has stated that “we thought that flies were not covered by the Animal Welfare Act”, and they have now dismantled the exhibition. Otmar Böhmer, the managing director of the museum, added that “we share the same basic ideas of the animal protection organization that animals are not there to entertain us”.

This is not the first time PETA have taken issue with Damien Hirst’s provoking works, something which is unsurprising given the huge number of animals (the majority of which are insects) to have died for Damien Hirt’s art – according to Artnet News a conservative estimate would be 1 million. The Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg have said they are trying to contact Hirst’s studio to see if the installation could be presented with artificial flies.

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