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Life, death and a thousand years

Damien Hirst a thousand years

Life, death, art and a thousand years

When I stepped forward to observed the flies buzzing around a rotting cow’s head in a rectangle glass vitrine, at the Gagosian Gallery in London in 2006, I clearly remember feeling blown away.  However, when I looked closely at Damien Hirst’s artwork, ‘A Thousand Years’ expecting to see the flies freely feeding off the decomposing flesh and maggots coming out of the eggs in the carcass, it didn’t take long to notice that the flies where suffocatingly trapped in the glass box. They were imprisoned.


Watching those flies has always stood out as a remarkable experience as I quickly realised that it was the ultraviolet light that was killing them. The inevitably of death was almost too much to take. The flies’ lives seemed too short. It has its congruence with us right now in our homes during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, as we fear becoming infected by the virus. As I stood there in front of the artwork, I was utterly captivated by the power of it. I asked myself how did the artist come up with this concept and why would he want to draw attention to death?

Stuart Bush Studio Notes

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It is now easier to comprehend this formative experience since we all now have shared participation in Covid-19 outbreak. We are having thoughts about our brief lives, and how we are spending our time. Are we making use of the little time we have left? Or is a fear of death overwhelmed us like rabbits caught in the headlights? Maybe we are just like those flies!  Andy Dufresne suggested to us in Shawshank Redemption, “get busy living or get busy dying.”


Hopefully, we can dig a little deeper and use those powerful thoughts for motivation during the pandemic.   I decided to take a look at death in art. Memento Mori is a common theme.  It comes from a Latin phrase that means, ‘remember that you will die, remember that you are mortal.’ Commonly, the form of a skull symbolises death. Artists have made artworks about death for hundreds of years. Damien Hirst was merely repeating this universal thread in his art. He encapsulates it by quoting, There has only ever been one idea, and it’s the fear of death; art is about the fear of death.”

Life, death, art and a thousand years

Gagosian Gallery - 'A Thousand Years'

By Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors stuart bush studio notes art and death

By Hans Holbein – The Ambassadors bQEWbLB26MG1LA at Google Cultural Institute, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22354806

Leaders of the past have often commissioned artworks with memento mori symbols, as a reminder to themselves to live a full life, to live in the moment. There is an old story that a Roman General on his triumphant march into Rome after a battle, heard a whispering voice saying, “remember that you will die”. When we achieve a high point in our career, when we earn a small fortune or have a million social media followers, or perhaps as an artist, get into the Venice Biennial; it is easy to lose track of what should be foremost in our lives.


Are fame and success the only meaningful thing? For most artists, I know this is not the case. However, does a reminder of death, the ‘memento mori’ symbol serve to give us as a sharp reminder, to reflect right now about this moment in time? Instead of being more present, when my children want to play lego or show me their latest drawing; should I dismiss them? Declaring that, ‘I am too busy?’ when I could die today, makes me realise that my priorities could be significantly misplaced.

Stuart Bush Studio Notes

The influential work of Francis Bacon

I might not get my latest painting finished. Will that matter when I am gone? After all, I can’t take the art with me. Death is not in my control. Once I am dead, what really matters? My legacy through art or through my children? With that in mind, I feel the need to ask if I have pursued today as if it was my most significant day so far in my life? Have I been totally present with what is most important to me today?

Tony Robbins tells us that, “What you give you get to keep, what you fail to give you lose forever. If you have a few points on the board, but you give it every ounce of your soul on that court, you know that you can walk away the winner… Winning and losing is an internal game. If you demand more truth from yourself every day, you going to end up with more points on the board than the other team.”

Tomorrow, I may get a second day. Every moment is valuable. Death is not the future, Seneca said, “do not think you’re moving towards death, every second that passes is death.”

Life, death, art and a thousand years

Julian Opie’s art encourages another look

Stuart Bush Studio Notes death and art

“Vanitas Still Life” by Pieter Claesz, 1630. (Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia)

This perspective is a powerful incentive that can make you look at life differently. Is bad weather going affect me? Is not having the money to spend on things I think I need going to distract me? Am I going to let my fears of death through this pandemic leave me thrown off balance, or is it going to motivate me? Should I allow my mind to wonder at great length about the futility of life? Or am I going to get on with living before it is too late?  There still so much living to do.

“If you could leave life right now,” Marcus Aurelius said, “let that determine what you do, say and think.”

Stuart Bush Studio Notes

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When you realise life is death and death is life and that it is just one thing, you know it will certainly come to all of us. Death in art and the fear of Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as an opportunity. It is time to stop taking anything or anyone for granted. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “how long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself.”

I hope this text about life and death and Damien Hirst’s ‘A thousand years,’ inspires you. These thoughts have inspired me. Now it is time to get off the sofa and live today as if it could be my last.

Life, death, art and a thousand years

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I have to stop being concerned about external criticism. Stopped feeling the need to be always right. I have to instead remember, ‘memento mori, remember that I will die’ and that I can’t take any of this with me. Is this how I want to spend my time before I die? Am I my living life to the max? The end of life is just around the corner, it is inevitable. I look back at the art I have made, and realise, Damien Hirst is right, my art, like all art, is about the fear of death.

Art reflects a moment and a time. It doesn’t need to be just a skull to be inspiring and motivational. If all art was motivational, every time you see art, it could inspire you to live a full life.  What about if you had something bright on your walls to make you think about living, instead of Covid-19.   A daily reminder to make the most out of each and every day. When I think of death and Covid-19, it reminds me that life is short.  I think of the flies on a carcass in Damien Hirst ‘A Thousand Years,’ heading towards the ultra-violet light.  What if you saw all art as a reminder, encouraging you to get on with living? Then it is possible for uplifting art on your walls to be a motivational antidote when times are hard.


Click to look at my recent work:


Stuart Bush Studio Notes,

©Stuart Bush, Just a feeling and not the truth, oil on canvas, 50.9 x 71.5 x 5 cm (click for further information)


Stuart Bush Studio Notes, Great souled way

©Stuart Bush, Great Souled Way, oil on canvas (click for further information)


Stuart Bush Studio Notes, death and art

©Stuart Bush, It won’t make you happy 2020, oil on canvas, 70.4 x 100.3 x 3.4 cm (click for further information)