Damien Hirst's painting 'I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds.'
An auction in London of work by a controversial British artist has fetched 2.2 million pounds for one strikingly beautiful, if subtly unsettling, piece -- a 17-foot-wide, 7-foot-tall red-gloss canvas covered entirely with the wings of thousands of real butterflies.
By the standards of 45-year-old artist Damien Hirst, the work, titled "I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds" -- a line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita quoted by Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer after watching the test detonation of the first atomic bomb -- is not particularly shocking. This is, after all, the artist who once cut a cow in half and preserved it in a glass tank of formaldehyde.
Outrage From PETA
But the butterfly-wing works -- a group out of which "I Am Become Death" is the largest, but by no means the first -- have, not surprisingly, drawn outrage from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which called him a "sadist" for an earlier piece. The group similarly decried the butterfly-wing-covered bicycle Hirst made for Lance Armstrong as "barbaric and horrific."
As far as I can tell, Hirst hasn't provided any answer about how he obtains the butterfly wings -- specifically, whether they were killed for the sake of art or collected after they were already dead. And the artist certainly isn't anti-green: In 2008, The Independent placed him at #32 on its list of Britain's top 100 environmentalists based on the large number of solar cells he had installed on his country mansion and warehouses.
Damien Hirst's 'The Explosion.'
Speaking to the Daily Mail about the bike project, Hirst said he "wanted to use real butterflies and not just pictures of butterflies, because I wanted it to shimmer when the light catches it like only real butterflies do."
In that, he certainly seems to have succeeded. The Cleveland Plain Dealer described a similar piece displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, "Bringing Forth the Fruits of Righteousness from Darkness," as a "visually stunning" work "designed to resemble a trio of stained-glass windows from a Gothic cathedral [that] almost seems to emit light."
To me, though it doesn't settle all the qualms I might have about the piece, there is something about seeing the butterfly wings out of context, and in such great numbers, that really highlights the beauty found in the natural world, perhaps drawing attention to it in a way the butterflies themselves, flittering occasionally through the periphery of our vision, might not.
More On Butterflies
Butterfly Biomimicry Can Curb Counterfeiting of Banknotes
Butterflies Not Coping Well With Double Whammy of Climate Change and Habitat Loss
How to Revive an Extinct Butterfly
Turkey's Butterfly Bounty Documented in New Report
Biomimicry Breakthrough: Butterfly Wings Could Lead to Better Solar Panels
Butterfly Explosion In Montréal
The World's Biggest Butterfly House is Set to Alight in Britain