Coming to Terms with Damien Hirst
When you think of the Met in New York you might imagine marble statues, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Rembrandt. But it’s also a good place to see new art. Two weeks ago I entered one of the galleries for contemporary art and found myself face to face with the gaping maw of Damien Hirst’s tiger shark in formaldehyde. It really looks dead. Its flesh looks rotted and sagging, the holes where the supporting wires go through are brutal tears in the flesh; in short there is no residual appearance of life, let alone the ferocious hunger of a living shark. It looks just like what it is: a dead animal suspended in a liquid preservative.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, according to Virginia Button, curator at Tate Modern,
draws attention to the paranoiac denial of death that permeates our culture.
According to Hirst, a shark
looks alive when it’s dead and dead when it’s alive.
Something about the eye of a living shark, and the way it moves, as if it were an automaton, creates this sense of “death.” And providing the body is smooth and tight, a dead shark might evoke a sense of life, since it seems to be designed to drive forward forever. But Hirst’s shark is not sleek and tight, and its eyes are merely sad shriveled holes.
The title suggests the impossibility of imagining death. One can imagine the physical possibility of physiological states, such as being cold or hungry. But one cannot imagine death as a physical reality, since no one living has experienced it. In particular, we are asked to consider that the sight of a fifteen-foot tiger shark suspended in a tank is supposed to be so awesome and so fearsome as to negate its physical condition as a carcass. And that is the first denial of plain vision we are asked to perform when considering this work.
The shark—or sharks, for there is more than one—are unique to Hirst’s formaldehyde artworks in that the animal carcasses were not obtained from slaughterhouses. Hirst paid a commercial fisherman to kill those sharks. Does that distinction matter?
Hirst’s other formaldehyde works betray an emotional disconnection. The animals are typically from slaughterhouses. They were either corpses when Hirst got them, or soon would be. Then there are the sharks, animals he paid to have killed solely for the purpose of artworks.
It’s too bad. Hirst has said that when people look at his cows he wants them to “feel like a hamburger.” That puts me in mind of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch:
just look, please, at what’s on the end of your fork.
The shark was the only object I came across in the Met that could not be photographed. Copyright permission to do so had not been granted. The copyright for the reproduction of it that appears in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is owned by Damien Hirst.
It’s not hard to see how prohibiting photography would arguably benefit Hirst. The awesome presence of the Met infuses a kind of life into any of the objects displayed there, including the shark. All of that polished marble and gold, treasure after treasure glimpsed down endless corridors is apt to make a person a little tipsy.
As you enter the upstairs gallery containing the shark, its open mouth is the first thing you notice, since it is facing you. The tank is huge. You’re drawn to it precisely because it’s so enormous. This is exactly what is missing in digital photographs of the object. According to Gary Tinterow, curator of contemporary art at the Met,
Simply by placing it [the shark] in a container in a museum setting, he [Hirst] creates the conditions for a work of art.
Really? Well, if it’s in the Met, it must be art. And in our thoroughly Duchampian contemporary art world, something is art if Hirst says it is. Or, to be precise, if Hirst/Cohen/Saatchi/Tinterow say it is.
Tinterow calls the shark a work of conceptual art and as such it does not matter which shark in a succession of sharks is actually in the tank, as long as the specimen is not a “tired old wrinkly one.” (It’s already been replaced once during its life as a work of art).
But there is the $100,000 price tag to consider for changing out the shark, and Tinterow’s definition of the work is positioned to thwart those clear-sighted souls who, like myself, not intimidated by all that gold and all those Rembrandts, point up and say, “Look, no clothes!”
There is no doubt that close-up photos of those ragged holes in the shark’s sagging flesh would signal to viewers freely sharing them over the Internet that it is all too possible to imagine this creature’s death.
I did not try to sneak a photo, but plenty of people have. Simply do an image search and they’ll come up. That’s where I got this one, which I have placed beside an image of what appears to be a living tiger shark.
But it’s concept art, and besides, looking at concept art is only half of the experience. The other half is the title.
Here then is the best possible spin on Hirst as an artist: His work incites discourse. This is not an accident or a byproduct of the work, but a direct result of the provocation that the work engenders. It is made to provoke.
Killing a magnificent animal, the appearance of which is supposed to make death appear impossible, and snuffing out the brief lives of butterflies to decorate a bike emblazoned with the word “LIVESTRONG” cannot help but provoke. According to Hirst though, too many people criticize him because they are blinded by discourse. He thinks that people prejudge him before they even go into a gallery and view his work, that they have been contaminated by journalists and critics. The problem is, his own words sometimes trip him up. For example, he would have us believe that real butterfly wings are so much lighter than pigments or decals as to be a determining factor in decorating a racing bike. He can try and ban the photographing of the shark, and he can sue a kid for stealing a box of pencils and trying to sell a few collages that incorporate one of his images (on Hirst’s hypocrisy in this matter see Nicole Jordan). But he can’t control the discourse.
We talk about Hirst today. We use Hirst to talk about the issues of the day. But what will people say a hundred or two hundred years from now? Will they say with amazement, “Look at the values of that society!” Will they be amused that the shark and the skull were at the top of the art market pyramid? Chances are the shark won’t be around. It will exist as a description in a book, and the student will shake her head in wonder, the way we do now when we read that the Greeks had massive carvings in their temples which glittered with gold and majestic colors.
The shark in formaldehyde looks to me like a morbid throwback to the 19th century, when men fancied themselves masters of the earth. Damien Hirst is the latest P. T. Barnum of the art world. He’s not an advanced artist, not even the most conservative of artists. He’s a retrogressive one, and the only thing to be salvaged from his work is the resulting discourse that may advance us as artists and as people.
Mark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.