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In my article in February, I referenced Damien Hirst’s most famous work The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. For those of you who may have reservations about modern art, I believe this piece is an excellent introduction to the conceptual beauty, as well as the artistic controversy, of works in the modern, post-modern and contemporary art movements. So what is this work exactly?

Damien Hirst is an English artist who has been active in the art world for over thirty years. To date, his most famous works involve the preservation of animals in formaldehyde, such as the case here. This is arguably his most famous work, and was commissioned in 1991 by Charles Saatchi, who offered an advance to Hirst to create whatever he pleased.

Hirst then recruited a fisherman in Hervey Bay, a beach in Queensland, Australia, to catch a shark that was “big enough to eat you.” After the shark was caught and shipped, Hirst had the shark injected with formaldehyde, placed it in the tank in pose, and filled the rest of it with an additional formaldehyde solution to preserve it further.

So what is this work supposed to say? Couldn’t this be moved pretty seamlessly into a natural history museum? Why is this art?

Hirst has created other works similar to this one. The Golden Calf is an example, and was sold for 11 million pounds (~ 16 million dollars) in 2008.

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But is this art? Hirst is a self-claimed conceptual artist. Conceptual art, or Conceptualism, is art where the idea or concept that lies behind it takes precedence over its aesthetics or materials. I described one example of conceptual art in an earlier article, Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm.  And in The Physical Impossibility, an interesting idea underpins the entire work.

Think of the shark not as a predator, or as some animal Hirst paid someone to fish out of the ocean. Why would Hirst choose to preserve an actual shark, rather than some cast of one? Hirst intended the shark to represent something that can decay, something that will not always remain the same.

The shark is meant to represent the viewer. We share a similarity with the shark by our body’s temporality. The difference between a shark and ourselves, however, is that a shark doesn’t have the interest in or foresight for self-preservation. But we do. This work, a very plain one, is intended to be a reflection upon our own mortality.

How do we know that?

The most revealing part about this piece is that the original tiger shark needed to be replaced in 2006 because it began to deteriorate. This necessary replacement indicates the meaning beneath this work. The formaldehyde represents our attempts at self-preservation (exercise, eating well, thinking positively, etc.), and yet, even these attempts cannot ensure our immortality. This piece, in short, provides an intriguing example of man’s vain fight to become immortal.

But this work is still controversial. Hirst has been criticized because it is a work of art that anyone could have created, that it did not involve any special artistic skill to make. Hirst responded to this by saying, “But you didn’t [make it], did you?” There are other criticisms which follow this point, arguing that a preserved shark is not art, that it doesn’t meet any criteria that would classically be called art.

I will address this second point next week. I hope this piece helps any of you hesitant about modern art to understand that there is a rich amount of meaning that merely needs to be uncovered, even if the means of creation are unconventional. I’ll see you next week!

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