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A gold mammoth in a glass box

How to Un-Extinguish the Wooly Mammoth? Damien Hirst Explains


Gone but not Forgotten is an impressive gold sculpture of a mammoth that, with an added touch, becomes a mythological beast.

If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.

— Joseph Campbell

The mammoth belongs to a kingdom that is neither fantastic nor purely animal. It belongs to the history of our ancestors––To the which we call “extinction” but can never fully understand because we never saw it with our eyes. So we classify the mammoth in a fickle place between mythology and science, in that kingdom of unlikely wonders that could only possibly dwell in the past. And even if we have the testimony of mammoth bones in natural history museums, its existence is as unlikely as its disappearance. Now, if we were to add a unicorn horn to the mammoth skeleton, we would have the missing magical element that would place it in that kingdom of archetypes and magical animals. And extinction stops being forever.

That’s what English artist Damien Hirst did in 2014—with gold. His sculpture, Gone but not Forgotten, is the impressive skeleton of a woolly mammoth standing three meters tall, plated in 24-karat gold and protected in a colossal glass vitrine with gold framing. The piece is part of the Natural History series, which began in 1990 with the now-famous shark preserved in formaldehyde. But this mammoth in particular was donated by the artist to help amfAR in the fight against HIV, and was sold for £8.9 million.

A golden mammoth skeleton in a glass box

Perhaps only Hirst —who has been the great synthesizer of pop art, punk, scientific anatomy and aggressiveness— could have concocted these two species to create such a mythological beast. Now we know that adding an alicorn to anything is enough to give it a fantastical aura, but when added to a mammoth —magical by itself due to its extinction and its scale— it then stops being an extinct animal to become part of the legendary which is always eternal. In that regard, Hirst says:

The mammoth comes from a time and place that we cannot ever fully understand. Despite its scientific reality, it has attained an almost mythical status and I wanted to play with these ideas of legend, history and science by gilding the skeleton and placing it within a monolithic gold tank. It’s such an absolute expression of mortality, but I’ve decorated it to the point where it’s become something else, I’ve pitched everything I can against death to create something more hopeful, it is Gone but not Forgotten.

A sculpture showing the muscle structure of a unicorn


Image credits:

Todd Eberle for Faena Miami Beach

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