Courtesy of Ronnie Rysz

On Oct. 1, a new exhibition titled, “Love, Life, Death, and Desire: An Installation of the Center’s Collections,” went on view at the Yale Center for British Art.

The YCBA brings together Damien Hirst’s “In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays)” and 18 other works to show themes of love, loss, addiction and impermanence. The installation shows objects from a 1991 exhibition titled “In and Out of Love,” which has not been displayed in its entirety for many years. The installation speaks to the uncertainties of the present time.

“What is the impulse to make art?” asked Matthew Hargraves, the chief curator of art collections at the YCBA. “Is the impulse behind all art ultimately to create something that will endure beyond death?”

The installation includes British art pieces that date to the 18th century alongside contemporary pieces. Hargraves said he hopes to show how British art has both evolved and retained artistic aspects over time. 

The installation is a result of the YCBA’s unexpected closure in March due to COVID-19. Hargraves believes now is an ideal time to showcase Hirst’s exhibition, since it encompasses the anxiety and loss brought by the pandemic. 

Hirst’s exhibition was first shown in 1991 at the Woodstock Street Gallery in Mayfair, London. The exhibition was divided into two halves. On the upper level, live butterflies fed from bowls full of sugar water and flew free throughout the main floor of the gallery. 

On the basement level, the objects on display included eight paintings, four white cubes with a hole in each side and a table adorned with ashtrays. Dead butterflies flit about canvases of Hirst’s paintings and the ashtrays lay filled with cigarette butts. The YCBA, which purchased these objects in 1997, currently has this half of the installation on display.

Today, the Hirst exhibition is as much about what is on display as what is not. The permanent half of the exhibition, with paintings, tables and cubes, remains thematically connected to its undisplayed second half. 

According to Hargraves, the two halves of the exhibition reflect each other. In the basement, bowls of sugar water have become ashtrays while the butterflies are dead. According to Hirst, one half explores the romantic view of “being in and out of love” and the other half its harsh realities. The question, he said, is which is which. The upper half, said Hargraves, is warm and comforting, but also fetid and confined. The lower half speaks about pleasure and conviviality, but also addiction, disease and mortality.

“We’re dealing with death and life,” said Abigail Lamphier, the YCBA’s senior curatorial assistant who assisted with the installation. “I just think [the Hirst exhibition] fits so beautifully with what’s going on in the world right now.”

Other works in the YCBA installation include two paintings from the 18th century, a 19th century landscape titled “A Scene on the Coast, Merionethshire — Storm Passing Off” and a 2015 piece titled “Kingdom” by contemporary painter Christopher LeBrun.

Like Hirst’s dead butterflies and abandoned ashtrays, these works probe the line between art and life. They also touch upon themes of temporality, which Hargraves described as “the mortality of anything natural.”

In the press release, YCBA Director Courtney Martin GRD ’09 said the installation demonstrates how artists over centuries have engaged with “some of the most consuming themes related to the human condition.”

But envisioning the installation during a pandemic was not easy. Hargraves, Lamphier and others who worked on the installation not only imagined the project remotely, but also put it together from afar. Neither Hargraves nor Lamphier have seen the installation in person yet. 

“Usually as the curator, you would install it with the art handlers,” said Hargraves. “We had to do new experiments like installing remotely using FaceTime.” 

The YCBA’s architectural design also posed technical difficulties. Hirst’s exhibition has not been shown in its entirety for over a decade because of the building’s structure, which resembles a series of 20-foot cubes. But Hargraves said the current third floor is perfect for the exhibition. He added that the center had the walls painted white to resemble the original 1991 showing. 

“[“In and Out of Love”] is really a seminal work of British art,” Hargraves said. “It’s looking better than it ever has in our building.”

The YCBA’s installation will be on view until Feb. 28.

Annie Radillo | annie.radillo@yale.edu

Correction, Oct. 14: This article has been updated to reflect the correct location of Hirst’s exhibition’s first showing, Mayfair, London. A previous version of this article said the showing occurred in Oxfordshire.