There’s a piece of conceptual art by a British man named Damien Hirst called Pharmacy that I have always really liked. I first saw it years ago at the Tate Modern in London, then later came across a version at SFMOMA that was smaller but managed to hold my attention all the same.
As the name suggests, the piece consists of a life-sized re-creation of a pharmacy—a couple of walls’ worth of white shelving covered in all manner of prescription drug bottles. I assume the bottles are empty (the liability!), but if you look closely at the labels you find remedies for all sorts of ailments: emotion dampers for anxiety or depression, stomach soothers for gastric complaints, lubricants for the arthritically inclined. I found it unnerving to read the labels—my brain immediately thinking of all the myriad ways my health might fail me and all the unwanted side-effects that come from most drugs. But despite the reality of a fragile body (which is nowhere represented in Pharmacy but still manages to be omnipresent) and a dicey pharmaceutical industry, the installation remains surprisingly soothing. I chalked this up to the skill of the artist, his ability to bring all the many shapes and sizes and colors of bottles into a balanced composition, but now I wonder.
The Tate’s website has a small blurb from Damien Hirst about Pharmacy. In it, Hirst says, “I like the way art works, the way it brightens peoples’ lives… but I was having difficulty convincing the people around me that it was worth believing in. And then I noticed that they were believing in medicine in exactly the same way that I wanted them to believe in art.” Is it possible that the soothing quality of the work was not, as I had first thought, a product of Hirst’s adeptness as an artist but rather of my inherent faith in medicine?
For some reason, Pharmacy reminds me of that particular four-block section of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles that stretches from the Chateau Montmarte west past the Mondrian Hotel. On this bit of road there are too many billboards to count and several enormous video projection boards—not unlike a West Coast version of Times Square. But whereas the Times Square boards are surrounded by buildings and the streets of Manhattan, the L.A. boards are surrounded by the natural landscape of the L.A. basin: the San Gabriels rising up in a semi-circle to the north and east, covered in the area’s last remaining swaths of chaparral.
The juxtaposition of the natural landscape with the constructed reality and imagery of the entertainment world is disturbing to me—mostly because my faith resides with the former while most people find God in the latter. To borrow from Hirst, I like the way the natural world brightens peoples’ lives, but like him and his art am having difficulty convincing them that nature is worth believing in. If I could be the artist for a moment, I’d take over the billboards and video screens of L.A. and install images of the San Gabriels, a live feed of the golden hillsides broadcasting hour after hour’s worth of small, almost-imperceptible changes. But would this help convince people to have faith in nature? Or would viewers chalk up the soothing quality of the images to their artistic merit?
Probably neither, for while Hirst is asking his viewers to find in art the compelling message of drugs—the promise of a healthier, more vital, and longer life—in my exchange they’re being asked to give up the predictable and controlled world of entertainment for the vast unknowingness that is the natural world, the world of life and also of death. And since nothing’s scarier than death, I suspect the San Gabriels will remain in the background, a reminder of all that we have to loose and all that we’re running from.