The Story: A 216-ton artwork on display in Qatar is drawing controversy because it shows 14 different stages of human development—from conception to a fully fledged newborn baby.
The Background: Over the past 30 years, Britain’s Damien Hirst has become one of the most famous—and wealthiest—artists of the modern era. Much of his art has tended to focus on death. Some of his most famous sculptures include dead animals (a cow and calf, a shark, a sheep, and so on) preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in clear tanks. And his 2007 work, “For the Love of God,” was a platinum replica of a real human skull, encrusted all over with thousands of small diamonds.
But his latest work has sparked controversy because of its focus on life.
“The Miraculous Journey” is a series of 14 monumental bronze sculptures that chronicle the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus, from conception to birth. It ends with a statue of a 46-foot-tall anatomically correct baby boy. To highlight the theme, the sculptures are displayed outside Sidra Medical Centre, a hospital in Qatar dedicated to women and children’s health.
According to The Guardian, the sculptures were originally unveiled in October 2013 but then reportedly covered from public view until recent weeks following an outcry on social media.
“We are not expecting everyone to like them,” Qatar art specialist Layla Ibrahim Bacha says. “We are not expecting everyone to understand them. This is why they are there to actually create this element of debate, this element of thinking.”
“We believe it reflects very much the mission of Sidra, taking care of the healthcare of woman and babies,” Bacha added.
What It Means: In the 1970s and 1980s it was common to see pro-life activists standing outside abortion clinics holding placards with graphic pictures of dismembered fetuses. Many thought at the time that images of death would be the best way to shock the conscience about the reality of abortion.
But in the 1990s, pro-lifers began to realize that displaying life-affirming images could be more effective. Ian Donald, an obstetrician and devout Anglican who helped develop diagnostic ultrasound technology, was the first to recognize how sonogram images of babies in the womb could change the abortion debate. Sonograms give us a window into the womb, showing us the beauty of human development and invoking the natural love for children that most of us feel.
Hirst’s sculptures of the earliest stages for human development appear to be having a similar pro-life effect. While Hirst is not a Christian, his latest work echoes the biblical reality, as the psalmist said to God, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13).
“Ultimately, the journey a baby goes through before birth is bigger than anything it will experience in its human life,” Hirst told artnet News. “I hope the sculpture will instill in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder at this extraordinary human process, which occurs every second all across the globe.”