In Defense of Damien Hirst's Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

by Alexander Quaresma | @TheRedFlagg

There has always been an aversion to modern art. Perhaps it is just my own experience, but quite often I come across individuals, many of whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration for, who simply never have anything nice to say about modern art. For those whom I would consider to be classicists, I understand entirely. As for the rest- "eh." Nothing can be done. Things are as they are and people have their opinions and they are more than entitled to formulate them as and how they please.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst. Photo via "The New York Times," ca. 2007

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst.
Photo via "The New York Times," ca. 2007

Over the years I've come to assume that people have a hard time processing abstract thoughts that aren't their own. Why wouldn't they? Most of us, myself included, have a hard enough time as it is processing our own abstract thoughts let alone those of others. The aversion many people have when it comes to modern art is perfectly understandable when you consider how truly abstract most of it is.

At the same time, however, it is unfortunate. As the sun sets each evening and rises each morning, most assuredly these works we consider modern today will generate considerable interest in cultures of the future for a host of different reasons. When I think of modern art there is perhaps no work that emerges at the forefront of my thoughts before that of British artist Damien Hirst's monumental 1991/92 piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

As controversial as it is iconic, Hirst's work hits home on a number of levels. The piece consists of a dead tiger shark, preserved and suspended in a formaldehyde solution encased in an industrial steel glass rectangular cube measuring 213 × 518 × 213 cms. Upon viewing it for the first time six years ago at the Met I was instantly mesmerized. Roberta Smith of "The New York Times" perfectly observed how, "... in the light of a sunny day the azure cast of the formaldehyde solution would only intensify, making it all the more alluring." It's a beautifully accurate description for anyone who hasn't seen it in person.

It's one thing to discuss The Physical Impossibility of Death, but to stand before it and gaze into that murky azure cube while a real dead sea monster lies frozen in time and space is quite an experience; objectively and subjectively. One cannot simply observe this work and not silently wonder to themselves what it would be like to be in the same position as the shark. It has an unbelievably hypnotic and widely misunderstood quality.

Haters will hate ...

Damien Hirst and his piece have been criticized by others who claim that someone else had conceived encasing a shark in glass first - constituting plagiarism on Hirst’s part. The most vocal of these critics are those behind the contemporary remodernist Stuckism movement. A number of years ago they posted a website: "Stuckism: A Dead Shark Isn't Art." It comes down fairly hard on Hirst, and goes on to exhaust a lot of time and effort displaying many facts pertaining to the matter which ultimately mean very little.

The Stuckism: A Dead Shark Isn't Art website seems to have a problem with Hirst's artwork, on one hand, attempting to disparage it because Hirst did not catch the shark himself. It is as petty an argument as it is irrelevant. Logic such as this dictates that we ought to think less of James Joyce because he did not chop down the tree and process it into paper in order for him to write Ulysses on.

On the other hand, there is that serious charge of plagiarism. This is where it gets sticky. The claim is that someone else had already used the idea of taking a dead shark and displaying it behind panels of glass for the benefit of the gawking eyes of the public at large. The original display occurred in the storefront window of Eddie Saunders's electrical supply shop in 1989. Though I take no issue in someone trying to be creative in an effort to stand out in his or her entrepreneurial endeavors, the idea behind putting a dead shark behind glass for that reason is far different than doing what Damien Hirst was seeking to accomplish with his Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Is it plagiarism? Well, let us pause for a moment and think about it.

Is Banksy plagiarizing Disney, Coca-Cola and McDonald's when he parodies their brands in his works? I suppose, at face value alone, one could say he is. In actuality what Banksy id doing, or anyone else who engages in this kind of modern art, is decontextualizing an image and then recontextualizing it in a way the image was never meant to be seen by the original designer to make what is more often than not a broad socio-political point. It works because the image or symbol Banksy is reconfiguring - be it that of Mickey Mouse, a can of soda, or the golden arches - is an image engrained into the conscious mind of virtually every sentient living being on the planet.

It would seem to me that Damien Hirst has simply done the same thing that this new wave of guerilla artists has been doing since Andy Warhol. The difference, however, is that Hirst has done so to an idea that has not permeated popular culture; nor was Saunders's idea meant to. Nonetheless Hirst does seem to have been inspired by Eddie Saunders's fish-in-a-window concept. Then again, thousands of museums have been doing the same thing for centuries. So it's not exactly like Mr. Saunders invented the idea of putting a dead animal behind glass for all to see. Are we to hurl accusations of plagiarism at Mr. Saunders in turn? Of course not, to do so would be ridiculous, just as it is ridiculous as those claiming plagiarism on the part of Damien Hirst. It would seem that what may have happened is the same thing that always happens to an artist. Damien Hirst probably saw Eddie Saunders's display and found inspiration.

Assuming this is what happened, Hirst took the concept, and completely modified it in order to play with light, color, and the concept of death in a twentieth century context. These are things that Eddie Saunders's window display didn't do. In light of this I reject any criticisms or calls of plagiarism hurled at Damien Hirst's work.

A large part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that at one point Hirst's Physical Impossibility of Death sold for £9,500,000. To that all I can say is anything is worth whatever value anyone wishes to pay for something. I have a 1986 topps Dwight Gooden baseball card I'd be willing to sell for 25 grand. Meanwhile, it's just a piece of dyed cardboard. It's value relative to the rest of the baseball card market would also probably make its worth not much more than a cool quarter. It doesn't mean I, or anyone else, wouldn't sell the card for 100,000 times its value if there was someone open to making such an exchange. Had Hirst's work not sold for what it did, would anyone really be making a stink about it being a plagiarized work? I sincerely doubt it.

The Stuckists point that "A Dead Shark Isn't Art" is well taken; and I'd even be willing to agree with them 99% of the time. A dead animal isn't art, it's a facet of biology. However, in so far as Hirst's shark used in his Physical Impossibility of Death is concerned, I have to respectfully disagree with the Stuckists. It is a work of art, and a very powerful one at that.

Capitalist-Marxist Interpretations

I have come across no other analysis of Hirst's Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living which I have enjoyed reading more than Luke White's paper, "Damien Hirst’s Shark: Nature, Capitalism and the Sublime" for the Tate. 

I hardly agree with all of his points, however, he does indeed make some statements I am in full jubilant agreement with.  For example, I love White's post-modern analysis of the film Jaws (1975), which he uses to help make an interpretive point about Hirst's work. It is brilliant. White writes of Spielberg's film:

... the predatory instincts of the shark are mirrored on land by the economic forces that drive the suppression of public knowledge of the shark attacks, so as not to damage profits from the holiday trade. Such a privileging of economic rationality over people’s welfare belies the very name of the seaside town, ‘Amity’, which evokes a pre-modern form of community based on human feeling, an escape from the dysfunctional urban modernity ...

White follows with this:

The water lapping at Spielberg’s lens in the beach scenes gives visual form to the contrast between what lies ‘above’ the bright surface of American consumer culture, and the social violence which lurks below.

Luke White certainly has a strong grasp on interpreting would-be metaphors.

I am in agreement with White's greater point that Hirst's Physical Impossibility of Death has much to say about a monstrous capitalist order that has arrived with "visions of global empire" in full. White makes the critical point that Hirst's sculpture (if that's what one could call it) by its very existence communicates volumes to its viewers, perhaps in an all-too-easily-unheard frequency, about a society that has the means to capture such a beast, forgo using it for sustenance, preserve it, encase it in a rectangular glass cube filled with toxic chemicals meant to preserve flesh from rotting indefinitely, essentially mocking death itself, and then transport it around the world. Just what kind of a society would produce something such as that and then present it as art? Well, ours would.

In this respect, Hirst's Physical Impossibility of Death is the viewer looking through a proverbial "glass darkly" and seeing a monstrous reflection of what emerging global capitalism has wrought since the sixteenth century. To use White's own poignant words:

Hirst’s art, riven with the contradictions of our society, is rather like capital’s uneasy dream-image of itself.

Though White's point is well taken, and should not be overlooked, I would argue that Hirst's Physical Impossibility of Death, while possessing this esoteric commentary on the nature of capitalism, such commentary is merely a shadow of a greater point lying at the heart of Hirst's mysterious creation.

This is where I part ways with White, as he seems to believe that the use of a shark by Hirst is a metaphor intended to draw parallels and comparisons to the exploitation of nature, slavery, colonialism, and the monstrosity of blind global capitalism alone. Reading White's paper I came away with the idea that he feels Hirst's use of a shark in his work has more to do with deconstructing capitalism and finding a materialist interpretation than it does anything else. White states:

This fish is certainly fierce and dangerous, but is far from being the inhuman monster, with those ravening, all-devouring and insatiable jaws, and row upon row of razor sharp-teeth, and with its implacable pursuit of human flesh, that occupies the fantasies of contemporary culture. There is none of Hirst’s ‘powerful kind of horror’ here, which is also to say categorically no sublimity.

On this point I could not disagree more. To begin with, no, the fish is not far from being an inhuman monster. It is very inhumanly monstrous. That I believe was part of the point. I'm not sure how White would define a monster, but sharks come pretty close. Sharks, in an anthropological interpretation of the word "monster," pretty fulfills all the criteria necessary to be regarded a monster. This is not to deny their importance to the overall ecological health of the planet, nor is this to say they don't deserve to be protected and preserved. They are the magnificent beasts of our seas and are every bit as beautiful as they are monstrous. But to attempt to paint the shark in a light that de-monsterfies it is, in my view, missing the point entirely. To view sharks merely as misunderstood creatures of peace and love from the deep is severely underestimating how unconscious the rest of the universe is when compared to a sentient human mind (not that White was doing that, I'm simply emphasizing a point). I am even more than willing to accept that there are some species of animals on this planet that do carry more intelligence than others. We see it in elephants, in dolphins, in dogs, and perhaps most creepily of all, even in spiders. However, when it comes to the majesty of the kingdom of fish there is no consciousness there. To stare into the black eyes of a shark is to stare into an organism running on its operating system alone.

I believe this played a significant part as to why Hirst decided to use a shark in his work. It is because a shark is a monster; it is a beast. This is not something that should be glossed over.

Interpretating the beast.

The full name of the work is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. How many of us truly understand the comprehension of the painfully existential ramification the title of the work is transmitting? Probably not many, which is something Hirst seemed to already be aware of when you consider the title he gave his work.

A shark is a beast of the sea, the sea being an archetype in nature of the abstract notion of the "abyss." In my own interpretation of the work, with its ethereal blue-green hue (depending on the time of day and lighting) and the monster entombed within the cube, it's not the abyss of outward space and time - it's the abyss of individual human consciousness. Incidentally, that is yet another way in which one can interpret the shark in the film Jaws.

When I view Hirst's sculpture, and I read its title, I see the work of a man who has arrived at some very deep truths about our existential ride on this rock and his struggle to give such truth form.

What I have not, as of yet, seen is anyone remarking upon the air of melancholia which runs through and around the piece; no doubt facilitated by its blue-green presentation. There is a sadness embedded in the work, a deep and profound sadness. It is symbolic of a sadness that the psyche encounters upon lonely dark nights of the soul. It is reflected in the entombment of the shark, yet at the same time, the shark embodies the beast lying at the heart of the sadness in the first place. It is a sadness born out of a profound truth, which we're all aware of, but one so many fail to absorb. It is the truth that everyone we've ever known, cared for and loved; family, friends, even pets, shall be consumed by a proverbial beast in the field of time we're trapped in at some point in the future, and die. That would include ourselves as well.

The elongated rectangular cube represents that field of time. Rather than being a perfectly square cube, it's elongated shape gives it the subliminal quality of representing linear time. Therefore the beast's gaping mouth of razor sharp teeth is a portal in time that we call death. To come face to face with Hirst's work is to come face to face with an artist's reflection of your death; something which would otherwise be impossible.

One's death is not an easy thing to come to terms with. We are each aware of this impending turning point into oblivion our lives come with, but we're for the most not fully conscious of it; which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Life should be enjoyed when one can. Having death at the forefront of one's mind at all times could put a damper on that. 

Full consciousness comes at a price, and often that price is emotional pain. And it can hurt. It can hurt a lot like, speaking metaphorically here, the mouth of a ravenous large-toothed beast chewing you up. It's not really palatable to dwell on such things. Nevertheless, in time, it shall come to pass.

I also refer to the work as being painfully existential. I describe it as such because there is no promise of anything affirming in the work. Sooner or later we and everyone we've ever known shall be consumed by the beast, whether we want to process this existential fact or not. It will happen. As many philosophers and great men of religion would be right to point out, to merely die is far from an existential reality. Many would offer to tell you death is merely a staging point for something greater in the hereafter. And yet, in its form, Hirst offers nothing in the work hinting at the promise of something better, something salvific, something sublime after death. To realize the sign in the hidden horror slumbering in the iridescent blue and green solution is to truly behold an inescapable fate awaiting anyone who lays eyes upon it.

There are some, and it would seem Hirst might be one, who encounter such truth in the deep recess of individual consciousness and are forever affected by it. I interpret the placement of the shark in the confined space of an elongated cube as representing the physical impossibility of death in an individual mind of someone living, just as the title infers, as opposed to the collective well of human consciousness alluded to by thinkers such as Jung. This is not to say Hirst's work is negating Jung's idea of the collective unconscious. Rather, it is to say death - of a loved one, or even ourselves - is a highly personal thing each one of us must cope with using whatever resources our life experiences have taught us up until that moment arrives from the murky expanse of time. It's a highly, highly subjective experience.

There is nothing that can be done to stop such a thing from happening, as such, we let it lie in the back of our minds as an abstraction. Sometimes such abstractions need to be processed in the artistic imagination as a means of overcoming them for the time being. It would seem to me that Hirst has done just that.

Authentic vs. The In-Authentic

Artists, philosophers, artist-philosophers, whatever their medium, are genuinely motivated by a need to find authenticity in their art. Realism in art is a method of approaching the genuine, or authentic. It's a powerful aesthetic when properly depicted. As the "New Yorker’s" senior art critic Jerry Saltz opined in regard to Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death, “This is realism taken to the tenth degree.” There is a mesmeric aesthetic which Hirst has captured in that raw realism as embodied by the carcass of a real shark. It's virtually unparalleled.

It is here I should perhaps add that there might be a play in terms going on in Hirst's title as well. Whether or not it is intentional, I couldn't say, but I have a suspicion that it is. Again, the full title of the work is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The "Mind of Someone Living" in the title may not in fact refer to the self, but rather to the other. To fully appreciate Hirst’s work one must not just observe the work itself, but observe an observer as well. It's a very amusing, almost darkly comic, experience watching while another patron approaches the work, walks around its angles, and wonders just what it is to be dead as he or she stares at a lifeless organism defiantly hanging in the aether inside the cube.

How Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is truly supposed to be seen.

How Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is truly supposed to be seen.

... even when it’s being subjected to ridicule, It’s all a part of the experience. 

... even when it’s being subjected to ridicule, It’s all a part of the experience. 

On this level Hirst's piece is also a prop in an unscripted subtle little piece of performance art; hence Saltz’s remark that it is realism to the “tenth degree.” It really is. The beauty is that every reaction is different, and therefore when viewing The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living properly, it is never the same twice.

The box at the end.

On a personal note, upon thrusting myself in Hirst’s display as the up-close onlooker for someone else who remains observing at a distance, I couldn’t help but think of an old proverb regarding chess. It's the one that states that "at the end of the game all of the pieces go back into the same box." If there is a reality to the physical impossibility being alluded to in the title of Hirst's work, such a proverb might very well have been on my mind, determining the look on my face for whomever the at-a-distance observer would have been seeing upon my viewing of the work.

So when we have the Stuckist critics declaring that “a dead shark isn’t art,” they are merely stating the obvious. It's true, a dead shark in not art. However, I would argue that a dead shark encased in a blue-green formaldehyde-filled cube which plays with light, time, space, and emotions is. And, as Luke White has demonstrated, on an entirely other level of analysis, The Physical Impossibility of Death also makes a strong statement on the realities of global industrial capitalism.

Hirst has since gone on to use this medium of encasing dead animals in glass in other creations. He's even done so with another shark. Nevertheless, it is Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living which represents the work which has had the deepest and most profound impact within the zeitgeist of latter 20th and early 21st century art. It takes what is perhaps the oldest of all human anxieties, an anxiety that in all likelihood goes back to pre-human times, that of our ephemeral existence, and has created a work of art that is as beautiful as it is horrific.

I understand Damien Hirst has a lot of critics and perhaps even people who just flat out don't like him. As for myself I know very little about the man. I don't know his history, his politics (if he even has any), things he may have said in the past, or even if the only reason why he is disliked by some is simply over something that I know nothing of any of it. All I know is the work. I suppose in this regard I am somewhat at an advantage if I'm to gae at Hirst's creation objectively. 

In spite of the corpse, the chemical solution, the riveted square angles which make up the overt presentment of materialism, it still speaks to us at an unbelievably deep archetypal level. Whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not, Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is nothing short of a post-modern existential masterpiece.

A final thought. Earlier I claimed that "in form" Hirst's work offers its viewer nothing affirming about death. But I'd like to refer back to Roberta Smith's description of the work: "in the light of a sunny day the azure cast of the formaldehyde solution would only intensify, making it all the more alluring." Whether Hirst intended this or not, though in form on paper the work has nothing affirming to say about death, the existence the form has in space and how it mingles with light just might. Then again, that's just a highly subjective, highly personal, observation.