Hirst’s shark

The Shark is coming to New York. According to the Telegraph and the Evening

Standard, Larry Gagosian has finally succeeded in brokering the deal we

first heard about back in December. Charles Saatchi will sell The Physical

Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living to an unnamed US collector,

who will promptly donate it to the Museum of Modern Art. The price? Somewhere

in the neighborhood of $12 million – as the Telegraph points out, that’s

higher than any living artist, including Jasper Johns, has ever received at

auction. If there was any doubt as to Damien Hirst’s art-market status, it has

now surely been erased.

The Shark, as the piece is universally known, is probably the single most important

work in Hirst’s oeuvre. I remember making the trek out to St John’s

Wood in 1992 to see it in the Saatchi Gallery shortly after it had been made:

an instant icon, it more or less became the defining art work not only in Hirst’s

career, but also in those of Jay Jopling, his dealer, and Charles Saatchi, the

man who bought it for what seemed at the time the pretty steep price of £50,000.

It was a magnificent work of art – and I’m choosing my verb tenses carefully

here. While death has been a common theme in art for as long as art has been

made, Hirst was pretty much the first to bring it literally into the gallery.

The Shark was placed next to A Thousand Years, his powerful –

and smelly – meditation on life, death and decay, where flies were hatched

inside one of Hirst’s trademark vitrines, only to migrate over a glass partition

towards a rotting cow’s head, and get electrocuted on the way by a bug zapper.

Meanwhile, the shark was suspended in formaldehyde, sleek, deadly, and –

of course – dead. It didn’t look dead, though: it looked as though it

was alive, suspended somehow not only in space but in time, the subject, perhaps,

of a sorcerer’s spell which could bring it back to life at any moment. Walking

around it, staring at it staring at you, you felt an undeniable frisson of real

physical danger. The Shark delivered an atavistic shock, catapulting the viewer

back to our Darwinian past even as we stood admiring its artistry. Much great

art works by setting up an ironic tension between the art and the object: are

you looking at brush strokes, or are you looking at what they represent? Are

you reading a word, or are you looking at a Ruscha painting? In this case, the

distance between the shark and The Shark was both greater and smaller than the

art world had hitherto seen. The shark was the art, of course; but

the art also consisted in the primal reaction to it – a reaction over

which any human had almost no control.

After the show at the Saatchi gallery, or perhaps during it, Hirst became an

art-world megastar, and he soon started being shown in proper museums. But there

was a big problem: his neoconceptual pieces, it turned out, didn’t age well.

When Sensation, the Saatchi show including Hirst, Whiteread, Ofili

and others, went on the road, A Thousand Years had been emasculated.

While dead flies still littered the bottom of the vitrine, the cow’s head had

been replaced by a plastic simulacrum, and the life cycle so unblinkingly displayed

became something you had to imagine, not something you could watch for yourself.

No longer could you go back week after week and see the cow’s head get smaller

and smellier; no longer could you see the pile of dead flies get larger and

blacker; no longer could you hear the sound of flies getting zapped

as they made their way towards the rotting flesh. The art work now stood as

little more than a record of its own prior existence, a clever idea, perhaps,

but not nearly as visceral as it had been originally.

Meanwhile, the shark was – is – falling apart. The sleek creature

of 1992, seemingly captured mid-swim, has started to decompose. Its flesh is

rotting, falling off its body; its skin is wrinkled; its scales litter the bottom

of the vitrine. Evidently, Hirst’s early experiment in preservation in formaldehyde

has proved a less than stellar success. The work is still historically important,

but when it’s shown at MoMA, the millions of gallery-goers will see something

very far removed from what Hirst originally intended and created. As Greg Allen


about Dan Flavin, "such is the strange afterlife of work that produces

beauty from the banal, an object lesson in how the legacy of a strong-willed

radical can be brought to heel by an even stronger force, the market."

In an ideal world, MoMA, or Hirst, or someone, would restore, or recreate if

necessary, the shark to its original condition. But the Gods of the Market seem

to have determined that authenticity trumps art every time – a determination

which will only serve to prevent the true nature of Hirst’s work being seen

by visitors to MoMA, and which will surely increase misunderstanding about what

Hirst is really about. After all, a saggy shark in a vitrine is not sleek or

deadly at all: you might even say it’s a different kettle of fish entirely.

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9 Responses to Hirst’s shark

  1. mike d says:

    But is the art to be displayed because it is good art, or because it’s historically important?

    I mean, we keep crumbling copies of the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence around when there are perfectly serviceable copies lying around, and this may be a similar case if (as you seem to be getting at) the historical importance of Damien Hirst creating The Shark is as important as the artistic experience of The Shark itself.

  2. greg.org says:

    The key difference between Flavin and Hirst–for the moment, anyway–is that Hirst is still alive and can decide how his work should continue on.

    If he determines that The Shark shouldn’t be remade and the shark shouldn’t be replaced, it’s an active decision to give some weight to the “objectness” of his art. It’s a decision that makes inevitable entropy and one-way decay an integral part of the work’s existence. Whatever it was in 1992 is exactly, that–what it WAS. Some day it’ll be a giant tank of sharkfin goop with a vintage photograph and an explanatory text next to it. Of course, whether that’ll be deemed as important in the future as the still-recognizable shark has been for the last 12 years is for the future to decide. Who knows, maybe MoMA’ll deaccession it in 2055, giving it free to whoever will haul the mess away.

    Or Hirst can just as easily–and authentically– decide to recreate or restage his works to keep them perennially fresh (or at least decaying from a fresh state). Then it’s the idea, not the incarnation of it, that prevails, which’ll be fine until tiger sharks go extinct, and they have to genetically engineer them the way they handmake Flavin lightbulbs now. It’s up to him, really. If I were droppin’ 6 million quid for a dead fish, I’d certainly ask him about that.

  3. Felix says:

    Let’s put to one side, for a moment, the rumours that Hirst himself might be the buyer of the shark. Assuming he isn’t, I don’t agree that he “can decide how his work should continue on” — or at least not entirely. Take the hypothetical example of a Frank Stella pinstripe painting — let’s say that Stella says that it’s going a bit wobbly around the edges, and he wants to recreate it. Whoever owns it should just turn over the original, and he’ll destroy it and give them a beautifully hard-edged recreation in return. Do you think anybody would take him up on his offer? I very much doubt it. Once the artwork is sold, the artist doesn’t own it any more, and certainly does not have control over how it’s displayed.

  4. d says:

    I”m with Felix, btw.

  5. David Richards says:

    Having visited the shark many times over many years, I think the gradually occuring “mummified” look is in itself affecting. What was once terrifying and invincible is starting to look like a shrunken toy. The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living? Us or the shark?

  6. Hirst show at MFA Boston: “A third-rate Warhol”?

    ABOVE: Damien Hirst’s Away from the Flock (1994), on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until April 24

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  7. MemeFirst says:

    Something fishy

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