Shannon O’Connor

When Damien Hirst’s Sheep Drove Me Insane (Again)

I looked into the eyes of the sheep and it stared back at me. The black sheep, submerged in formaldehyde, was on display at the Museum of Fine Arts and I was writing an article for my community college newspaper, The Third Rail.  The third rail is the dangerous part of the train tracks which people should not touch or they will be electrocuted.

The sheep seemed to beg me to take it out of the case and save it. But I couldn’t, of course. It was already dead. As dead as I would be, possibly sooner rather than later. It had been three years since the last time I was in the psychiatric hospital. It was a long time, but not long enough. I still had dreams of being locked up.

I was taking classes at the community college near where I lived. I was embarrassed to go there, because it was considered a dumb school where people went who couldn’t get into college. The reason I couldn’t get in was because I had been in the looney bin, but I couldn’t tell people that. I was ashamed.

I hadn’t wanted to go to the art museum alone, but I was going during the day because I had a press pass. I thought I was cool because I was a member of the press and I could get in places for free. I wanted to be a writer, but I never wrote anything. I joined the newspaper so I could learn to be a journalist.

The Damien Hirst exhibit was in the contemporary section. I wandered through the whole museum, looking at everything. I had never been there before. I liked weird things, but I didn’t know anything about art.

At the Hirst exhibit, I saw lacquered bugs stuck together under a black finish. I was disgusted. Not because they were dead, but because they were bugs.

But the sheep! Oh that sheep! With his pathetic eyes and soggy wool, what was I supposed to do? I looked at the sheep in the glass case and I got too close, and the guard yelled at me.

“Don’t stand so close!” he said.

“But it’s…dead,” I whispered.

“Of course it’s dead, it’s art. You can’t get too close to this stuff. You should back away.”

I stood away from it. “But it was alive once, and now everyone is looking at it.”

The guard wasn’t listening anymore.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the sheep. “I’m sorry you have to go through this. Every being should be venerated when they pass from this Earth.”

A man came up to me. “Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay! That animal died to be made into art!”

“Are you some kind of animal activist or something?” he said.

“No, I think it’s horrible. Doesn’t anyone else?” I looked around. “Do all of you think it’s fine that this beautiful animal had to die so it could be on exhibit here at this world-famous museum?”

People looked at me, and looked away, milling around.

“So, all of you think this is acceptable?” I yelled. “I don’t think animals should be made into art when they die!”

“Do you eat hamburgers and chicken?” a woman said to me. “What’s the difference?”

“We need to eat. We don’t need to look at this poor sheep and say it moves us.” I fell on the ground, panting.

A woman came up to me with a museum uniform on. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a dead animal in that case. I’m upset by it. I want it taken away.”

“We can’t. You have to understand, it’s art. The artist is trying to say something.”

“What could he possibly want to say?”

“The message is that we’re all sheep, and trapped like this one. The sheep never knew what hit him.”

I sat on the floor and cried. “But it’s upsetting. The eyes look right at me, like they want me to understand.”

“Listen, is there someone I can call? Do you want someone to pick you up?

“Nobody can. My parents won’t drive into the city this time of day. It’s almost rush hour.”

“How are you getting home?”

“I don’t think I could go home after this. I might want to go away.”

“But where are you going to go?”

“The sheep! How could the world exist when that sheep is dead?”

“You have to relax. I don’t think you’re okay.”

“I haven’t been for a long time. I was locked up when I was seventeen. And I never became a vegetarian. I’ve always been a carnivore. I don’t know if that will change. I’ve never eaten lamb.”

“You need to leave.”

“You want me to shut up, is that what you’re saying? I have to write an article for my school newspaper about this exhibit, what do you think I’ll write? That I freaked out when I saw the dead sheep!”

I wiped my nose on my sleeve and got up.

“I’m going now. But I’m never coming here again.”

I stumbled out the door.

Sometimes, I had a hard shell around my heart, and others, it cracked and my soft heart was exposed. The sheep had broken the shell that medication and harshness had solidified. I wandered the streets near the museum, choking the fall air. College students wandered by, yelling at each other. I wondered how the world could exist as always when atrocities were found in an unexpected place.

I decided that nothing was innocent, that art and the universe were entwined together and nobody would win this war. I was going to have to go back to the hospital. Hopefully, the memory of the sheep’s eyes staring at me would dissipate with time away from real life, school, and my family, and I would find who I was supposed to be, a version of me who hasn’t existed yet, but I dreamed would someday.

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About the Author

Shannon O’Connor holds an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. She has been published previously in Wordgathering, as well as other journals. She works at a hospital in the Boston area, and frequents museums whenever she can. She can be found on her blog