Damien Hirst’s sculpture of a tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, has been said to “epitomize the art of our time.” Why? It’s arguably the most important work by the central figure of the last major internationally-recognized art movement, the “Young British Artists” or YBAs, who emerged in London in the early 1990s.
Why is it Hirst’s most important work? The shark was the most controversial work (and as a result the best-known piece) in the first major exhibition to feature the YBAs, the “Young British Artists” show organized in 1992 at the Saatchi Gallery. It was the subject of widespread debate in the media—the mainstream press, but also the tabloids and cartoons—to a level some said compared to that of the most famous British art controversies, involving the Tate’s acquisition of Carl Andre’s fire brick work, Equivalent VII or James Abbot McNeil Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (popularly known as Whistler’s Mother). In many respects as a result of this exhibition, the YBAs went on to rejuvenate the British art scene to a level unseen since the 1960s.
Why was the shark so controversial? Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Jeff Koons had suspended basketballs in tanks in the 1980s; animals and sharks had been represented in painting and sculpture before; and animals in formaldehyde had even been shown in natural history museums, yet the presentation of such a large animal in formaldehyde, displayed as if it were alive (perfectly preserved, weighted and balanced in the tank so it looked as if it was floating in place and looking at the viewer)—was unprecedented in the art world.
Hirst’s work wasn’t just any animal either—it was a shark, one of the scariest animals to humans; the 1975 movie Jaws probably is most to blame for this. Hirst originally wanted to use a Great White like the one in Jaws but he couldn’t because the fish are endangered. He ended up using a tiger shark. Hirst commissioned the catching of the fish; one of his stipulations was that he wanted something “big enough to eat you.” All of which is to say: don’t discount the scariness of the sculpture.
Hirst’s budget was also huge relative to previous artworks, and this was something seized on by the press. The collector Charles Saatchi, who told Hirst after seeing some of his early works that he would financially support what he wanted to create, put up 50,000 pounds to make the work. The Sun, a British tabloid, famously announced as a result: “50,000 for Fish Without Chips.’’
Apart from the work’s novelty, the fear it creates in the viewer and the audaciousness of its creation, its significance also lies in how ambitiously and forcefully it reflects a predominant interest which has occupied Hirst throughout his career—making a society reluctant to deal with death come face to face with it.
The title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, allows for this interpretation. It introduces a paradox. We, as viewers, can never really see death, but only understand the idea of it. However right in front of us is placed a physical example of it: an enormous dead animal, a vicious killer which is now wholly impotent. This is also the paradox of so many works in art history, whether they feature the death of Jesus or Marat or John F. Kennedy—we spend so much time and energy visualizing or physicalizing death—probably in the hope that it will make us understand it.
At the same time, such an explanation doesn’t take into account that you’re facing not just anything that has died, but a shark, which looks like its about to eat you. So in the work, in addition to facing a physical example of death, you’re also facing your own imminent death by shark attack, which might prompt viewers to reflect on their own existence, or just move away from the piece.
The current version of The Physical Impossibility… actually isn’t the original. In 2005, upon the shark’s purchase by the collector Steven A. Cohen, Hirst volunteered to remake it because the original tiger shark did not age well. The initial preservation results were not good and the body had decomposed, causing its form to change and skin to wrinkle. Also, the tank liquid became cloudy. (At one point the Saatchi Gallery decided that adding bleach to the tank might fix the problem but it only compounded it.) By 1993, Saatchi’s curators decided the only way to keep the body intact was to take the skin off and put it over a fiberglass mold. According to Hirst though this was not a good solution. He explained, “It didn’t look as frightening...You could tell it wasn’t real. It had no weight.” The current version—a 13-foot tiger shark—was preserved using an alternative method.
While the shark is Hirst’s best-known work, it by no means wholly representative of his art for he has created an immense variety of artworks. For example, in addition to his shark works, he has included other animals and objects in vitrines, such as his In and Out of Love (1991), in which he filled a gallery with hundreds of live tropical butterflies, some of which were actually hatched from monochrome canvases that hung the walls and included cocoons. There was also A Thousand Years, a large minimalist tinted-glass case filled with a rotting cow’s head and maggots left to its own devices, as well as Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything, which consisted of a cow which had been cut into 12 different pieces and then stored in cases filled with formaldehyde, which were then installed in a row, so if theoretically the cases were pushed together the animal would become whole again. Hirst’s technique was re-interpreted (as the work of a serial killer) in the mainstream movie The Cell starring Jennifer Lopez.
Hirst also made paintings. Most well-known are his spot paintings, which originally based their color arrangements on the color of certain pharmaceuticals (characteristically stimulants or narcotics) and were recently the focus of an unprecedented exhibition at all eleven Gagosian Gallery locations in 2012. In addition to his spots, Hirst has made spin paintings, paintings of pharmaceutical labels (which include traditional British foods or meals), as well as photorealistic paintings of hospitals and medical experiments. Finally, Hirst makes sculptures that don’t include animals, such as his shelves of pills (which eventually were used to decorate a restaurant and bar he opened in London called Pharmacy) but also large-scale sculptures, which refer to anatomical models. More recently Hirst created For the Love of God, a platinum cast of a skull covered with 8,500 diamonds, which purported to be the costliest work of art to ever be created at 23.6 million dollars. The work got its name from what Hirst’s mother said when she heard about it from her son: “For the love of God Damien what are you making now?”
Read the last post in this series on Andreas Gursky.