Damien Hirst | Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2004

FINAL Damien Hirst, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2004 Photo by Nicole Wholean

Damien Hirst
Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2004

Four parts, each: 115 ½ x 52 x 6 inches (2932 x 1322 x 152 mm) 

On loan and installed in Barus & Holley lobby 2022-2027
Private collection



Earth, Air, Fire, Water (2004) is a quadriptych installation of four rectangular lightboxes aligned in a row by the British artist Damien Hirst. A light source illuminates each box, and the photographic transparencies overlap to represent images verisimilar to the physical forms of the four classical elements believed by the ancient Greeks to compose the universe.  On the left, opaque earth is used to portray aridly cracked soil, alluding to sterility and the impossibility of growth. However, the appropriate interaction with the other elements could aid the nourishment of the ground to create fertile soil and foster life. To the right, a lightbox depicts light white clouds on a bright blue sky, evoking a subtle breeze and grasping the intangibility of air. The sense of calm of the blue contrasts with the warm colors of fire beside it. Hirst employs a bright yellow fused with vibrant orange and red to represent fierce flames and clouds of gray smoke, gesturing to the energy of fire and its power to destroy. On the far right, shades of blue illustrate surface water with circular ripples that increase in size from the center towards the bottom of the image. A drop of water falls in the center of the waves suggesting a continuous agitation to the stillness of the liquid.  

Hirst is perhaps the most widely known of the Young British Artists (YBA), a loosely defined group of British artists, many of whom first showed together in Freeze, the 1998 exhibition Hirst curated as a student. A collaborative exhibition with his peers at Goldsmiths College of Arts in London–which included Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, and Michael Landy–the term Young British Artists was first used in 1992 as they marked the British and global art scene during the 1980s and 1990s with irreverent and shock-provoking works, as well as an entrepreneurial mindset. Earth, Air, Fire, Water was originally designed and installed in 1998 in the lobby of Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant. Re-executed in 2004 after the restaurant’s closure, the work is currently located in Brown’s Barus & Holley engineering building. 

Hirst has long drawn inspiration from dichotomies such as stillness and dynamism, life and death throughout his career. Earth, Air, Fire, Water is part of his “Pharmacy” body of work, originating with the installation Pharmacy in 1992 (Cohen Gallery, New York, NY) where he included four glass apothecary bottles filled with colored water–blue, yellow, red, and green to symbolize the elements–as well as his recent series of prints The Elements (2020). He refers to the belief that four elements constitute the universe and must be in balance to allow for energy to flow and generate or end life. The fragility of existence has consistently influenced the artist and is present in pieces like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), part of his "Natural History" series of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde (1991-2013), and For the Love of God (2007), a platinum human skull encrusted with over 8,000 diamonds. Mortality is projected as a reminder of the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death.  

Damien Hirst (b. 1965, Bristol, United Kingdom; lives London) has been a renowned figure in contemporary art since the 1980s. He is also a curator, entrepreneur, and filmmaker. Hirst explores various media, such as painting, sculpture, installations, and drawings, and is influenced by minimalism, conceptual, and optical art. His work continues to be featured in major museums and galleries. His career was launched with the collaborative exhibition Freeze at the London Docklands, England (1988), and was followed by many others, including solo exhibitions such as Internal Affairs, ICA, London, England (1991); Pharmacy, Dallas Museum, Dallas, TX (1994); A Bad Environment for White Monochrome Paintings, Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA (1994); A Good Environment for Coloured Monochrome Paintings, DAAD Gallery, Berlin (1994); Damien Hirst: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, England (2012); Damien Hirst: The Last Supper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2016); Damien Hirst, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, Norway (2016); Relics, Doha, Qatar (2013-2014); and Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy (2017). Major group exhibitions include Broken English, Serpentine Gallery, London, England (1991); the 1992 and 1995 Turner Prize Exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, London, England (Hirst won the 1995 Turner Prize); the 1993 and 2003 Venice Biennales; and the 1997 exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, which debuted at the Royal Academy of the Arts, London, England and traveled to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Germany, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.