For my visual artefact, I have chosen to cover a piece of contemporary art titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, otherwise known as “The Shark”, created by Damien Steven Hirst using the funding provided by the commissioner – Charles Saatchi. The piece features a tiger shark submerged in formaldehyde, encased in a glass and steel tank. The title of the piece, according to D. Hirst himself, was just a statement that he had used to describe the idea of death to himself, with this, the artist pushes the narrative of there being philosophical layers to his creation as opposed to it simply being a mock of an enclosure which has one of the ferocious beasts known to man encased within its bounds. Damien Hirst’s “The Shark” first saw the light of day in the Saatchi Gallery in 1992, it received mixed reviews, some questioned Hirst’s intentions and morals, while others praised him for an innovative approach to creating art. With this essay, I wish to analyze the piece, the commentary proposed by it, the troublesome aspects of it, the bigger picture which can be comprised of the aforementioned points as well as provide context in relation to the present-day issue that is the endangerment of sharks.
The shark encased within the vitrine is motionless, she is confined to a space in which a living specimen of her species would not survive for more than a week, she is doomed, regardless whether she is alive or dead. Unaware of her surroundings, stripped of all her senses; no sense of perception, no sense of identity, no sense of space, only four walls, an eternal abyss within them and an inconceivable world outside of them. The only thing she can do is give in to the grasp of death and let it dematerialize her physical body through the means of decay, the only traces of her remaining in the minds of those living. The piece allows the viewer to come close in contact with death itself, regardless of how one chooses to interpret it – whether it is the process of decay, the shark and its lethal nature, the formaldehyde in use to sustain and preserve the shark’s material body, or the obscure state of stillness within the tank. The artist constructed a space in which death is impossible, yet is the most prevalent, Damien Hirst captured the process, or rather, the moment of dying within a rectangular box and, self-admittedly, that was his intention with the piece. However, some found it troubling to understand why exactly was it that the artist decided to use a tiger shark for his piece.
In past interviews, Hirst acknowledged this piece of criticism and stated that his reason for using a shark, of all things, was based around the idea of showcasing “something “big enough to eat you”, something that, alive, would have been terrifying and, even in death, is not comfortable company”. It works as a sort of an allegory for coming to terms with death and mortality; the piece allows the viewer to look death in the eye and accept the fate that they have been dealt on the day that they were born. The inevitability of one’s demise, regardless of where they might stand in the hierarchy of society and regardless of how much power and wealth which they possess is another potential bit of commentary that “The Shark” proposes by featuring one of the most ferocious aquatic predators in the state that it is in within the vitrine, indirectly hinting at the fact that even the apex predator or, the highest ranking member of society, will one day meet their inevitable end.
Having said that, it appears as though words such as “predator”, “terrifying”, “deadly”, etc. have come up a fair number of times now, granted, that is the lexicon within most articles that I managed to stumble upon while researching the matter, which, in itself, illustrates an issue that reaches out beyond the bounds of the vitrine of D. Hirst’s artwork. The piece unintentionally works as a metaphor for how the public perceives sharks as a species in the real world. The specimen is presented in a way that would make it appear as though it is in attack formation; jaws open and slightly protracted, pupils blackened and fins propelled backwards; no matter from which side or angle of the vitrine one was to look at the piece – the shark will always come off as a threat. Come to think of it, the tank used by D. Hirst is not the only nor the first rectangular object which is known to present sharks in such manner; television and silver screens across the globe had been doing it for more than a decade before “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” ever saw the light of day.
The release of “Jaws” in 1975 was a monumental moment in history, dividing the timeline even further into two more pieces, one of which represented the time “Before “Jaws””, the other – “After “Jaws””. The film painted sharks in such a negative light that it led to an exponential growth in larger shark species being fished up as “thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing “Jaws””. This resulted in a catastrophic decline of larger shark populations across the globe, however, none of them suffered a loss like the Northwest Atlantic Ocean – racking up a total of 89% in Hammerheads, 79% in Great Whites and 65% in Tiger sharks in terms of population level drop rates. The author of “Jaws”, Peter Benchley, has previously stated that had he known what his book and its adaptation would bring upon the species, he would not have created “Jaws” in the first place, “P. Benchley spent much of the rest of his life campaigning for the protection of sharks”.
In present day, the common shark, despite being one of the most hunted and mistreated species of fish, is still seen as an aquatic killing machine out for human blood due to misrepresentation within the media. It appears the aggravated galeophobia among the public masses has allowed for the issue to get to this extremity. With his flawed reasoning behind using a murdered shark for his piece, D. Hirst unintentionally reinforced the demonization of sharks and turned what could have been a statement which would contribute to shark conservation and image cleansing into yet another trophy piece for those on the hunt for these misunderstood creatures.
All things considered, Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is a philosophical piece intended to comment on the inevitability of death and its grim nature, however, it can be interpreted as how people, as a collective, perceive sharks. It has the potential to shed light on a serious and relevant issue, but, unfortunately, fails to do so as the intentions of the artist contradict the opposing stance which states that “sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges”, contrary to that, it perpetuates the idea that sharks are vile creatures crave human bloodbath.