Articles and Features

The Checklist, Vol. 1: The 1995 Turner Prize Exhibition

Mother and Child (Divided) by Damien Hirst, the work that earned the artist the 1995 Turner Prize
Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided), exhibition copy 2007 (original 1993) © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

William Pym, portrait

William Pym, The Checklist, Volume 1

Art history, like world history, looks different depending on where you’re standing and what matters to you. The monolithic western canon has been chiseled into a prism, absorbing and reflecting new narratives and new histories. This is a good thing. Fashion, a sexy blur, drives the conversation about contemporary art in culture, and consensus is rare and temporary. This is a fine thing. Money and the art market tie us in knots and cloud our judgement, because the latter is easily manipulated by the former. This is a bad thing. Mush all these factors together, and a solid art history seems both more elusive and more necessary than ever. This column, The Checklist, looks at an exhibition from the past via facts that cannot change: artwork, space, audience, a moment in time. The goal is to cut through the noise, and to remember that art is a gift.

The Turner Prize 1995
Tate Gallery
November 1 – 3 December 1995

The Turner Prize was the most visible modern artistic honour of the British age leading up to the millennium. Initiated in 1984 in Thatcher’s grey, the Turner Prize quickly became the engine of public art discourse in the UK. An annual jamboree for the British tabloids, every time there was something to say: too explicit, too unserious, a sham. It stirred up the collective conversation with the soapy, quaint, somehow eternally low stakes of culture unique to an island nation. It was a cause of grousing and resistance within art culture as well, with terrible representation outside of white men for many years and the nagging odour of a private club. Nevertheless, it occupied a space nothing else occupied, year after year. In the past decade, like many institutions, the Turner idea has mutated in relevance and agency, and the prize has become a less commanding force in public chatter. The old platforms don’t work for the new generation — that’s how it works and that’s how it’s supposed to work. Everything has its moment. And some of these moments are worth fixing in place. The Turner Prize was one of the many sunbeams of Cool Britannia, a real thing, with the UK exporting all sorts of significant, sexy cultural stuff for years on the power of Tony Blair’s smile. The Turner Prize was right there when it began, before it began, in 1995, with the breakout showbiz moment of what would later become known worldwide as the Young British Artist movement. The checklist, this month, is about that exhibition in the London winter of 1995.


The four nominees — Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Callum Innes, and Mark Wallinger — displayed recently exhibited, well-received works in a ground floor wing of the navigable, then sometimes even quiet Tate Gallery [now Tate Britain]. It was modestly scaled, not a mega-show. Each artist had a room or two.

It was a given from the start that 30-year-old Damien Hirst would win with Mother and Child (Divided), shown for the first time in London after making waves in Venice in 1993. People already knew the work. Mother and Child (Divided) comprised a cow and calf divided twice: from each other, in the broken maternal bond, and from themselves, literally. They were bisected and put in parallel glass tanks of formaldehyde with thick white-painted steel frames, four quarters of a relationship.

Mother and Child (Divided) forces the viewer to stare death in the face. The work joins a lineage of art — from the 1960s cowboy mysticism of Bruce Nauman to Rembrandt’s objectively gross Slaughtered Ox, 1655 — confronting the physical certainty of mortality. Per Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8: “The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag. / Picture it clearly. If you can.”

There is an inherent visceral gravity to it, anchored to history, and there is also, crucially, heavily signalled gravity to it. Hirst’s title and its intimations of Catholicism are a blatant pull for meaning, evoking the profane, teasing the viewer to make an interpretation. It pumps up the seriousness — or at least the ambition— of the work. And it landed with the public, the whole thing. The work was photogenic as hell and lodged itself in culture beyond even pictures. People loved talking about it. It was a viral idea in a pre-internet age. It was an image that could somehow be known and transferred without even being seen: animals in glass tanks of formaldehyde cut in half.

Disgust was a steady reaction. Camera crews and beat journalists could easily find visitors to the exhibition who really, really, didn’t like it, who swore vegetarianism, who wanted it taken away from kids. The work got reactions in everyone who saw it. There was no doubt these pictures, these visions, would ring through the ages. On the day I saw the exhibition, a small group of people bustled on cue to assemble in linked-arm circles around the two bisected cows, protecting them from view and chanting their protest of the work. I was moved on to the next gallery. They dispersed in a few minutes. It was a non-aggro thing. I thought it was a religious group, church group or something. Some things are hard to process when you’re 15.

Hirst won the prize, of course. The filmed ceremony was a black-tie affair in the Duveen Gallery, the cavernous heart of the Tate. Brian Eno gave a spicy, erudite speech about the lousy state of art discourse due to the negligence of the government. Hirst wore a stretchy turtleneck in fluorescent yellow. Maybe Versace, maybe Cyberdog. A roar erupted in the hall when his name was announced, like the winning final throw of a darts match. Hirst announced himself to art history from the dais: “It’s amazing what you can do with an E in A-Level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw.”

Damien Hirst after receiving the 1995 Turner Prize
Damien Hirst (right) at the Tate after receiving the Turner Prize with artists Michael Craig-martin (left) and Grenville Davey (centre), 1995.

Hirst has lived, outlived and relived that mythos for 25 years, an ongoing very rich producer of things and moments and provocations. Around here, if not here, the template for the superstar artist was born. The Hirst train started rolling after his win. He became the backdrop to the new swinging London, with a knack for iconography and Capitalist stunts that capture attention. He opened an expensive restaurant in 1997 that was an art installation that you ate in. He was a wild mess a lot of the time. He kept making and selling art and having it shown. As this happened, the art world began to start looking and operating differently. T­his was the climate where mega-gallery culture began to form, where you could do whatever you wanted all the time. That was the story of the 1995 Turner Prize Exhibition.


And this is the 2022 note. There was an artwork, a few galleries along from Mother and Child (Divided), a tall curved cave space, in which the viewer watched Mona Hatoum’s Corps Étranger. Corps Étranger joins the journey of a tiny remote-controlled endoscopic camera travelling through the tracts and organs of Hatoum’s body. The film is projected on to the floor; the viewer looks on it, a campfire of reds, yellows and hot whites flashing past fast. The viewer stares straight down the artist’s insides.

Corps étranger by Mona Hatoum
Mona Hatoum, Corps Étranger, 1994 © Mona Hatoum. © Georges Meguerditchian – Centre Pomipidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP.

Corps Étranger is no less obscene, no less prurient, no less cold-eyed and no less well-executed than Mother and Child (Divided), and it is very much in the canon of art that is unflinchingly blunt about the body. It delivers the visceral, grotesque banality of life, just as Hirst did. If you are growing tired of the buccaneering din of 1995, feel free to make Mona Hatoum the focus of this moment and write a different art history from there. Even just to take a break, and think about what could have been.

Relevant sources to learn more

Read the last edition of Standards & Practices by William Pym: Standards & Practices, Vol. 19: Out of Touch and Out of Time – Fame, Delusion and the Lesson of Christian Rosa