‘Sensation’ 20 Years On: Installing Damien Hirst’s Sculptures

It’s 20 years this month since the Brit Art exhibition ‘Sensation’ opened at the Royal Academy in London. This set of photographs by Johnnie Shand Kydd shows the installation of a set of sculptures by Damien Hirst which were central to the show

Johnnie Shand Kydd Damien Hirst
Installation of Damien Hirst’s ‘This Little Piggy Went To Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home’ at ‘Sensation’, The Royal Academy, London, 1997. Artwork © Damien Hirst. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017. Photo: © Johnnie Shand Kydd

We’re all a bit blasé about the ‘Young British Aritsts’ these days, even a little bit dismissive. So it’s easy to forget just what a stir the exhibition ‘Sensation’ caused when it opened at the Royal Academy in autumn 1997.

Curated by Norman Rosenthal and featuring 110 artworks from the collection of Charles Saatchi, the show crystalised a key moment in the Brit Art movement. Its significance was not so much the art itself, with many of the works already well-known to the public, including Damien Hirst’s seminal ‘shark sculpture’ (full title: The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of The Living), which was created back in ’91.

Johnnie Shand Kydd Damien Hirst
Installation of Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living’ at ‘Sensation’, The Royal Academy, London, 1997. Artwork © Damien Hirst. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017. Photo: © Johnnie Shand Kydd

But it was the bringing together of so many key works from the YBAs (including pieces by Tracey Emin, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread – the list really is a roll call of the key artists working in Britain at that time) in one show that made it important. That, and the fact that it was held at the Royal Academy, which gave both Saatchi and these artists, many of whom were seen as deeply controversial, the stamp of the establishment.

From the start there were protests from the public, particularly about the inclusion of Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, which was later vandalised, and resignations from members of the Royal Academy at the decision to stage the exhibition at all. To former ad man Saatchi, all the raging likely seemed brilliant fun, and of course led to the show being a must-see.

Johnnie Shand Kydd Damien Hirst
Installation of Damien Hirst’s ‘Some Comfort From The Acceptance Of The Inherent Lies In Everything’ at ‘Sensation’, The Royal Academy, London, 1997. Artwork © Damien Hirst. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017. Photo: © Johnnie Shand Kydd

Twenty years on, we’re able to see that many of the individual artworks shown in ‘Sensation’ have survived the test of time, despite predictions to the contrary, even if the longer-term careers of some of the artists featured, and perhaps Saatchi’s credibility as a collector, haven’t fared so well.

Of the most significant works, it’s impossible to ignore the power of Damien Hirst’s sculptures of animals suspended in formaldehyde, which for many remain his most significant works. A number of these were shown at ‘Sensation’ and it’s fascinating to see these backstage shots by Johnnie Shand Kydd of them being installed in the space.

And if you’ve ever wondered just what the works might have smelt like when being put together, the gas masks say it all.

Johnnie Shand Kydd
Installation of Damien Hirst’s ‘This Little Piggy Went To Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home’ at Sensation, with Hirst’s ‘A Thousand Years’ in background, The Royal Academy, London, 1997. Artwork © Damien Hirst. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017. Photo: © Johnnie Shand Kydd

All images courtesy of Artimage, artimage.org.uk

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