“You try and avoid [death], but it’s such a big thing that you can’t. That’s the frightening thing isn’t it?”
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is one of the most iconic images of contemporary art and has become a symbol Britart worldwide. The piece was conceived by British artist Damien Hirst in 1989 and consists of a 13 foot long tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, weighing a total of 23 tons. Hirst has said that his intentions were to force the viewer out of their element by presenting, in a gallery setting a shark that was "real enough to frighten you" as opposed to "just a lightbox, or a painting of a shark." According to Hirst, the title is “just a statement that I had used to describe the idea of death to myself” and originally comes from his student thesis on Hyperreality and the work of Robert Longo and Umberto Eco. The work was funded exclusively by Charles Saatchi, who offered to pay for whatever artwork Hirst wished to create, and cost a grand total of £50,000 - the shark itself accounting for £6,000, having been caught on commission because Hirst desired something "big enough to eat you." The sum was then considered so enormous the British tabloid newspaper The Sun heralded the transaction with the headline "50,000 for Fish Without Chips." The piece was first displayed in 1992 as a part of the Saatchi Gallery's 'YBA 1', and received [then as well as now] mixed reviews. Critics of the piece accuse Hirst of being a Conceptual artist, implying that there is no need to see the work in person. In 2003, under the title A Dead Shark Isn't Art, The Stuckism International Gallery exhibited a shark which had been put on public display two years prior to Hirst's by Eddie Saunders in his Shoreditch shop and asked,
"If Hirst’s shark is recognised as great art, then how come Eddie's, which was on exhibition for two years beforehand, isn’t? Do we perhaps have here an undiscovered artist of genius, who got there first, or is it that a dead shark isn't art at all?"In 2004, art critic Robert Hughes used The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living as a prime example of the "cultural obscenity" that defined the international art market at the time stating, "The string of brush marks in a lace collar in a Velasquez painting could be more radical than a shark murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames." On the other hand, there are those, such as Lynn Barber, who hail Hirst's shark, stating that "Like all the best advertising, it is bold, simple, ambitious and, above all, big." Roberta Smith shares this view:
"In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form."Due to poor preservation efforts initially, the original shark began to decay. This was remedied by the Saatchi Gallery who in 1993, gutted the shark and stretched its skin over a fiberglass mold. Hirst commented that "It didn't look as frightening ... You could tell it wasn't real. It had no weight." Before being sold to Steven Cohen for a speculated (but undisclosed) amount of $8 million, Hirst - funded by Cohen for an (according to Cohen) "inconsequential" amount of upwards to $150,000 - replaced the shark. This brought up an important philosophical question as to whether the artwork, with the replacement shark, could still be considered the same artwork. Hirst observed,
"It's a big dilemma. Artists and conservators have different opinions about what's important: the original artwork or the original intention. I come from a conceptual art background, so I think it should be the intention. It's the same piece. But the jury will be out for a long time to come"
Hirst has since created other works that feature preserved sharks in formaldehyde, The Kingdom for instance. He also created a miniature version of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living for the Miniature Museum (a guppy in a box). For more of Hirst's work visit his website and for more on The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living view this video.