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.