One reason to visit the Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern is to meet the drunken butterflies. They are in a two-room installation entitled In and Out of Love. In its first room you see a few dead butterflies randomly stuck onto a group of big canvases that have been gloss-painted yellow, purple, pink, and so on, like a jumble of xylophone keys. Then you pass through PVC curtains into a bright and humid gallery where dozens of live specimens, of tropical origin, woozily waft through the air. Their dark silhouettes, passing you by, flash iridescent blues, vermilions, and lime-greens.
Around the walls here are further canvases, blank but for pupae that have been stuck to them and that have left stains where they have hatched. On a central table, the butterflies have been supplied with bowls of orange and pineapple chunks steeped in sugar, and the mixture’s fermentation accounts for their languor. Some settle on the floor just where your foot would tread; others on your clothes and hair. “Shall I remove them?” a Tate employee discreetly inquires, stepping forward to pinch them free. With your fellow visitors you share a certain silenced wonder, a certain social awkwardness.
The first room is easily forgotten, but the feel of this second is bemusing. There is the stimulus of encountering these specimens of extravagant beauty. To call their beauty “natural” feels not quite right when the display is so much an affair of importation, of metropolitan fantasy. Yet in their bumbling, drifty way, these butterflies follow natural processes, growing, reproducing, and dying as all animals do, including ourselves. Like us they have their own purposes: they have lives. Is it odd for lives to be specimens? Is it wrong to encounter beauty this way? After all, few of us would single out for condemnation—among all the ways in which humans exploit nonhumans—the insectarium in the zoo.
Ah, but here there are no descriptive labels, no “Morpho amathonte, native of Colombia” and so on. Instead we are left with a caption, “In and Out of Love,” requisitioning the butterflies for some metaphor about our emotions: how a curtain’s twitch, presumably, can revert us from the glamorous and sensuous to the dry and apathetic. Fine words in the press handout about “reputable” suppliers and “a comfortable environment” can’t quite dispel my sense that these creatures shouldn’t be thus co-opted as conduits for a person’s self-expression. Yet why should I prefer to set their lives to the service of science, rather than that of art?
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.